The second-born in the Old Testament

Abraham had two children, Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was first-born, but the line of Israel came through Isaac. Then Isaac had Esau and Jacob. Esau was first-born, but gave away his birthright and the line came through Jacob. The Jacob had a whole bunch of sons, but the one God used for his purposes was Joseph, nearly the last of the twelve.

Why this emphasis on the first-born not being the important one?

I don’t think it will do to say, “There is no significance. It just happened that way historically.” Old Testament Jewish readers, at least, would have expected the pattern to mean something important to their identity as a nation chosen by God.

Does it emphasize that being the chosen people is up to God rather than man? (Compare Romans 9:11). Or that God is more concerned with a person’s heart than his position? (Compare 1 Samuel 16:7). It can’t be straightforwardly Messianic: Jesus is definitely pictured by a first-born, not a second-born, son. (John 3:16, Colossians 1:15).

Hmmm …

Any suggestions?

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Submitting to authority

[I’m back! After a two-month hiatus. I apologize for my long absence!]

In a recent post in my philosophy blog, I explored the relationship of morality to the laws and traditions of the culture we live in. I suggested there that possibly “we have no moral obligation to obey either the laws or tradition, but we have a moral obligation to be willing to obey the laws and to be willing to follow tradition, which is almost (but not quite) the same thing.”

For most of my Christian life, I would have said that we do have a definite moral obligation to obey the law. I held a pretty hard-line view of the importance of submission to authority, which I was sure the Bible supported. I would have pointed to the following Scriptural ideas:

  • The original sin by Adam and Eve was rebellion against God’s authority, and in one sense rebellion is still at the root of every sin. (Genesis 3:1-7)
  • God has placed authority over us for a purpose, and if we want to trust God we must be willing to submit to that authority. (Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 5:5)
  • There are specific spheres of authority in our lives and we are commanded to submit to authority in each of the relevant spheres. The spheres are: family, church, work, and government. (Colossians 3:18-25, 1 Peter 2:13-3:6, Hebrews 13:17)
  • Even when an authority figure is rejecting God, we are expected to honor their authority and wait for God’s deliverance. (Example of David and Saul. For example, see 1 Samuel 24)
  • When two authorities order us to do conflicting things, we should obey the higher authority. Especially, if obeying an earthly authority would require us to disobey God, then we must obey God instead. (Acts 5:27-29, Daniel 2, Daniel 6).
  • In addition to submission, we need to be respectful and show honor to those in authority, for the sake of their position. (Acts 23:3-5)
  • God is able and willing to change the mind of those in authority over us when we need Him to. (Proverbs 21:1 and several other verses)

I still agree with most of this, but my emphasis would be very different. Two things have changed my mind.

First, my interpretation of 1 Peter 2:13 changed. Here’s 1 Peter 2:13:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution …

A couple of verses later, it adds:

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.

I used to read these verses as saying,

“By God’s design, you are under the authority of various human institutions. Now that you belong to Christ, stop rebelling and be a submissive person.”

Now I read them in light of the truth that we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of the kingdom of God. We are here only as ambassadors – foreigners who live here but whose allegiance is to another land. Therefore I take them to be saying,

“You are now free from human authority, and serve God instead. However, for the sake of His reputation, and as good ambassadors, and as those under His command, continue to humor the human systems around you by submitting to human authorities. That will serve God’s purposes best.”

The practical result is the same: obey human authority. The reason is very different: obey not because you are under human authority, but because you are under God’s authority.

So we have an indirect moral obligation to obey the laws, but no direct moral obligation to do so.

Second, I’ve begun to realize that if the Bible has, say, a gazillion warnings (by command or example) about the dangers of rebellion, it must have about two gazillion warnings about the dangers of unjust authority. Just as powerful as our desire to rebel is our desire to be tyrants.

I think a Biblically balanced view of authority will be careful to emphasize the warnings given to those in authority at least as strongly as the warnings given to those under it. It will encourage a healthy suspicion that those in positions of power will tempted to abuse that power. I believe my previous way of looking at things was too naively trusting of systems of authority.


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Think hard, think well (1 Corinthians 1)

I mentioned these six points last time in discussing 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5, 2:14-16:

  • Think hard, think well. 
  • Don’t demand that things always make sense. 
  • Don’t value intellectuals about non-intellectuals in Christianity. 
  • Discern cultural strongholds of intellectual pride. 
  • Understand what it means to have the mind of Christ. 
  • Keep the gospel pure.

I’d like to consider the first one. 

Think hard, think well. 

Although this particular point isn’t found in 1 Corinthians 1-2 (at least not much), it is an important thing to consider as we look at that passage.

Intellectual humility is never an excuse for intellectual laziness. Whatever God has given me intellectually I should use for Him. That’s part of what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).  

Why does God want me to use my intellect? Not because He needs it! (See Job 38.) Nor is it in order to win the intelligentsia to Christ. On the contrary, God has specifically worked things out so that the opposite is true: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God,God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe … God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise … the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Cor 1:21,28,29). God has deliberately ordained that people will not get saved by being won over by the brilliance of Christian intellectuals.

No, the point is that whatever I do for God, I need to do as well as I can. Serving Him with all my might will mean, in the intellectual realm, that I try to think accurately and honestly about everything the very best that I can.

This is all the more true if I am gifted with a good mind. In that case, I need to set the bar high for myself. (Compare 1 Timothy 4:14-16 and 2 Timothy 2:15.) I should not be content to reason sloppily. Instead, I should strive to grow in intellectual honesty and fair-mindedness. I should cultivate curiosity and a love of learning. I should establish a habit of working hard to search out truth. I should seek to become saturated by Scripture.

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1 Corinthians 1 and intellectual pride

OK, suppose I want to use my mind to serve God, but I am worried about becoming intellectually proud. Does God have any direction for me?

Absolutely. There are lots of Bible verses about pride in general, of course, and I love that, but there is also a specific Bible passage whose central theme is intellectual pride: 1 Corinthians 1-2.

I started to write something about this passage last week, but it sort of got away from me. Here it is, a week later, and I still haven’t really finished. What I would like to post for now, though, is lots of stuff about how to interpret it, with just a few closing comments on how to apply it.

Framing the passage

First, note the context. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth. They had a ton of problems. They accepted immorality as normal for their members, turned their worship services into sideshows, and compromised the doctrine of the resurrection. They also had a real problem with spiritual pride, manifested in the form of major divisions in the church. Paul talked about that throughout the book but it is the focus of the first four chapters.

In 1:10, the instructive instructive part of the book  begins with these words:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you … (1 Cor 1:10)

Later in chapters 3 and 4 Paul reproves the Corinthians for this divisiveness. He starts by saying,

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of Christ, as to infants in Christ … for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and are you not walking like mere men? (1 Cor 3:1-3)

After offering himself and Apollos as examples of people working together in unity to serve Christ, he concludes this way:

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. (1 Cor 4:6)

In the middle of all this fall the verses from 1:17 to 2:16. There Paul narrows the topic of spiritual pride in general to intellectual pride specifically. He shows the conflict between the gospel and the arrogant wisdom of the world in 1:17-2:5. In 2:6-2:16 he contrasts that with the godly wisdom we’ve been granted in Christ, concluding that we have been given the supernatural capacity to understand spiritual things because we have “the mind of Christ”.

We will focus specifically on 1:17-2:5 and 2:14-16.

Interpreting the passage

For now, let me just make two obvious but fundamental observations about the meaning of this passage.

First, notice how anti-intellectual it seems at first glance. It sure looks like it is saying that the Christian gospel is not particularly rationally justifiable, but it doesn’t matter, and we shouldn’t try to justify it rationally anyway.

This can’t quite be right. Paul’s missionary practice, according to Acts, often involved reasoning with unbelievers to persuade them to believe. The words used to describe what he did are things like arguing, reasoning, persuading, and so on. So there must be more to it.

After a second glance, it seems likely that the real emphasis isn’t being rational but rather being proud. I think the guiding principle in interpreting the entire passage is to distinguish between seeking rationality in pride or in a way that panders to others’ pride, vs. seeking it humbly and in a way that encourages others to be humble.

At one point, I planned to walk through the verses phrase by phrase talking about the best way to interpret them, but I’ve decided that isn’t really necessary. Just go read them for yourself: (1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16.)

Applying the passage

Far more interesting to me is how these verses apply to our own day. Here are the six points I see as most significant. I’ll expand on them soon.

  • Think hard, think well.
  • Don’t demand that things always make sense.
  • Don’t value intellectuals about non-intellectuals in Christianity.
  • Discern cultural strongholds of intellectual pride.
  • Understand what it means to have the mind of Christ.
  • Keep the gospel pure.
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Intellectual humility

When I was a kid in school, I was bright and caught on to ideas quickly. I got lots of A’s. One of the things that confused me was what being humble meant. Was it pride to notice that I was smarter (academically) than the kids around me? Was it more humble to pretend that wasn’t true?

I heard the story about the rich young ruler. He was unwilling to follow Christ because he would have to give up all that he had. I felt like that. I was afraid that I would be unwilling to get saved if I wasn’t willing to become a fool for Christ. How could I be humble enough to respond to God if I was aware that I was smarter than a lot of people around me?

In high school, I attended a Christian fellowship for a while that emphasized the importance of discarding “worldly wisdom” and just believing God instead. They were worried when people tried to analyze spiritual truths too much. I tried — I really tried — not to think about my faith so much. After about a year, I said to God, “God, I can’t stop thinking! No matter how much I try to just believe, my mind just keeps running. I want to be humble, and just have faith, but I can’t figure out how much it’s OK to think about everything.”

The thought that occurred to me then — as though God were speaking to me — was something like this: “Kevin, don’t you realize that I made you the way you are? That i know you like to think about everything, and that I designed you that way for a purpose? Go ahead and think all you want! Just remember to surrender your thinking to me.

These days, I approve of Christians thinking! At the same time, I think there is a danger to putting our reason ahead of God. I think intellectual pride is a very real danger for us as Christians. I think every Christian intellectual ought to be aware of the Biblical warnings for those who think well (or think they do!).

So what is the Biblical teaching about intellectual humility? I’d like to write a little about that in the next few weeks. At this point, here are the passages I want to consider:

  • 1 Corinthians 1,2  (“worldly wisdom” as a barrier to salvation)
  • 1 Corinthians 12 (intellectual humility toward other people)
  • James 3 (teaching doctrine, heresy-hunting, and intellectual humility)
  • Matthew 23 (the Pharisees and how intellectual pride can poison spirituality)
  • A word study on “humility”
  • Some scattered verses from Proverbs (intellectual integrity)

I think these passages are the core of the Biblical understanding of intellectual pride / humility.

If you are interested in this subject yourself, spend some time reading the passages above. Pray about what you already know and believe. Work out what you think intellectual humility means. Write me your encouragement, advice, or questions.

Are there other passages or topics do you think I need to consider?

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Abstaining from every form of evil

Here is something I wrote a few years ago about 1 Thessalonians 5:22 and what it means. I’ve edited it slightly.


1 Thessalonians 5:22 says “abstain from every form of evil”. Christians often assume this means that we need to be careful not only to avoid doing wrong, but also to avoid doing anything that looks wrong. I believe that is a misinterpretation of this verse, and I’d like to explain why.

I’m going to investigate the interpretation of this verse in four steps.

1. Greek word

Let’s begin with the Greek word interpreted as “form” and see if it sheds any light on the question. The Greek word is eidos, and means, according to Vine’s, “that which strikes the eye, that which is exposed to view … the external appearance, form or shape”. It emphasizes the outward appearance of something as opposed to its inward essence. For example, in Luke 3:22, the Holy Spirit descended in the form (eidos) of a dove. When Christ was transfigured, the appearance (eidos) of his face changed, becoming white (Luke 9:29). In John 5:37, Jesus said no one has heard the Father’s voice or seen His form (eidos). In 2 Corinthians 5:7, we are said to walk by faith, not by sight (eidos) – that is, we do not live by the way things look but by our knowledge of what is really true. We don’t pay any attention to what appears to be true around us at the moment, but live by faith in what God says is really true.

2. Restate the central question

With this understanding of eidos in hand, we can now rephrase the central question to clarify it. When Paul says:

abstain from every eidos (outward appearance / form / shape) of evil

he could mean one of two things. It could mean “abstain from everything evil, no matter what it looks like”, or it could mean “abstain from everything that looks like evil, whether it actually is or not”. These lead to the two different interpretations we are discussing. The second of these, the standard interpretation (with which I disagree), would be interpreted this way:

Abstain from everything that looks like evil – everything whose form or shape or outward appearance is evil – whether or not its inward essence is evil. That is, if something looks evil, but isn’t, abstain from it anyway.

The first way of interpreting it (which I agree with) would be this:

Evil things can sometimes take on a deceptive outward appearance. Abstain from evil no matter what form it takes, whether it looks wrong or not.

Under this interpretation, saying “every appearance of evil” is similar to saying “every kind of evil”, or “evil in every guise”. (Vine’s, by the way, says that this use of eidos was common in Greek writings around the time of the New Testament.)

3. Context

Next, let’s consider the context of the verse, so that we can understand what Paul meant by it when he wrote it. 1 Thessalonians was written by the apostle Paul to the fledgling church in Thessalonica. He had been run out of town before he was able to complete his instruction, and wrote the letter to encourage them to keep believing, to clarify some doctrinal issues, and to straighten out some ethical questions that had arisen. In the last chapter, he closed out his letter by giving a series of miscellaneous instructions about church life to the Thessalonians. This particular phrase is part of the instructions about prophesy in the church, in verses 19-22.

Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)

Compare this to 1 Corinthians 14:9, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” Paul is telling the church how to respond when one of their members claims to have been given a message for them from the Holy Spirit. He says, first of all, not to deny all such claims routinely – to despise such prophetic utterances would be, he says, to quench the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. We need to let Him speak through each of us to the rest. On the other hand, says Paul, we must not take everything said as true, but rather must examine it carefully. We must discern whether it is truly from the Holy Spirit, or not. If it seems to really be from God, then cling to it – take it seriously, follow its encouragement or counsel or direction. If it does not seem to be from God, then reject it.

Now, which of the two interpretations above make the most sense? Does Paul mean, “abstain from everything that looks evil, whether it is or not”? Or does he mean, “abstain from everything evil, whether it looks it or not”?  I think the second makes much more sense than the first. Paul’s emphasis is on testing and discernment – i.e., looking behind the appearance of something to discover its true essence. The point is, a lot of prophecies sound good. Paul says we have to examine them, to find out whether they really are good or not. Having examined them, we need to respond accordingly. Those that are not from God, we need to abstain from – we are to abstain from every form of evil, from all errors regardless of their outward attractiveness. Those that are from God, we are to cling to, even if they don’t seem nearly so appealing to us.

If the standard interpretation were to apply here, Paul would be saying,

“Test all the prophecies. If one of them is really from the Lord, cling to it – unless it seems wrong on the surface, in which case you should abstain from that prophesy even though it was not wrong in itself.”

I don’t see how that makes much sense.

Of course, even though Paul wrote this in connection with prophesies, we can apply its principles to any area of our lives. The point is to see behind the veneer. We are to respond to things according to what they really are, no matter what form they take.

4. Connections

Finally, let’s think through how this connects with other ideas in Scripture and in life.

First, where anything is truly evil, both interpretations agree that we must reject it. There is no room for compromise with sin under any interpretation of “abstain from every form of evil”.  The differences arise only when we are considering things that are good in essence but are perceived as evil by the culture we are in. Such cases require discernment on our part to decide how to live best.

Second, even though 1 Thessalonians 5:22 does not mean what most people think it does, there is still Scriptural validity to the idea that we should be careful about how others see our actions. It is legitimate to be concerned about the testimony of our lives. One important Scripture showing this is found in 2 Corinthians 8:21

… we have regard for what is honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.

There are plenty of Scriptures about how we should live our lives in such a way as to draw others to Christ (1 Peter 3:16), to glorify God (Matthew 5:16), to avoid making others stumble (Romans 14:16-21), or even to guard our reputations (Proverbs 22:1).

On the other hand, it’s equally important to realize that we cannot possibly please everyone, and we shouldn’t expect or try to. Our culture perceives a lot of things as evil that we don’t: spanking our kids, for example, or saying people are sinners. Do we need to abstain from these things because they appear evil to people around us? Of course not. On the contrary, we are to discern what the truth about these things really is and make choices independently of the beliefs of the people around us. This is our liberty in Christ, and it is also our obligation.

If we lose this perspective, we begin to pay too much attention to what others think. Jesus predicted that those who persecute Christians would believe that they were in the right, that the Christians were the ones offending God (John 16:2).  He warned us to be careful of being too acceptable to the world (Luke 6:26 — see also Proverbs 29:25; Galatians 1:10, 2:6).

Balancing a healthy regard for others’ opinions with a healthy freedom to make choices counter to them is tricky but important. An interesting example of trying to maintain the balance is found in the last half of 2 Corinthians (for example: 2 Cor 5:12-13; 6:3,8-10; 8:21; 10:7-8; 11:5-7,12,16-21, 30; 12:1,3,19).

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Doubting Thomas

For years, one of the things I’ve wanted most is to see God reveal himself supernaturally to a skeptical world. The Christian world is mostly divided up into churches that say God does healings and miracles of various kinds all the time in their midst and churches that say God doesn’t do that kind of thing these days. I’ve been one of the Christians on the fence: I have to admit I’ve probably never seen a real example in my own life, but I try to remain open to the possibility.

In recent years, it’s shaken me on occasion that God hides himself so completely. I want to have faith, but I want it to be real faith in things God is really doing, not just a kind of made-up wishful thinking.

Through the years, a few of my friends have claimed to have experienced overt manifestations of God’s power in various ways. The question is, what am I to do with these reports?

When it comes to relative strangers making such claims, I am frankly skeptical. I think there are a lot of people out there who are just faking the supernatural because of what they can get out of it.

In the case of my friends, I know them well enough to judge their character. I know (in any reasonable sense of the word “know”) that they aren’t charlatans.  Still, sometimes I think my friends were confused or exaggerating. One said God healed his eyesight, but a week later he was wearing his glasses again. I don’t think he was deliberately lying; he just got carried away in the moment and a week later reality reasserted itself. Sometimes they took relatively ordinary events and assumed they were miracles. God “showed them” some secret bit of knowledge about the future, for instance – when in fact, all that happened was that a thought came to mind which later turned out to be true.

What confused the issue further was that many people who had such experiences developed doctrinal views with which I strongly disagree. I decided that even if the things that they said happened to them, they were drawing the wrong conclusions from those experiences.  It became important to me that I could accept someone’s experience as real without having to accept their interpretation of that experience as accurate.

It’d been years since I moved in charismatic circles, so I hadn’t talked to anyone I trusted about things like this for quite a while. This week, though, I had the opportunity to hear from a believer who claims to experience the manifestation of God’s supernatural power frequently in her life. She described at length what it feels like to have God speak or heal through her. What I appreciated is that although she has a definite interpretation about what God is doing and why, she didn’t editorialize much. She just reported. And I realized that I do believe her reports. The things she says she experiences, she really does experience.

Furthermore, if I were to experience the same things, those experiences would convince me that God was speaking and healing through me. I wouldn’t believe everything she believes about them, but I would believe that much.

Whenever I used to hear reports like this, they renewed my hunger to have God do the same things through me, so it is natural that this week also I wondered if I needed to be more open to the power of God. After all, it seemed funny to believe God does miracles and not expect to see them in my own life. Or, put the other way around, it seemed funny to admit I didn’t see miracles in my own life and then be willing to believe her.

The next day, though, I read the passage about “doubting Thomas”, and it took on a whole new light:

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord …

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.  So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (John 20:19-20, 24-29)

Jesus showed up to the other disciples, but Thomas was missing. When they kept trying to convince him of what they’d seen, he didn’t believe. He said the following:

 “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger in the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

I always used to read this with the emphasis this way:

 “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger in the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

In other words, Thomas was more interested in actual sensory evidence than the other disciples. It wasn’t enough for him to hear about it, he wanted to see it. And it wasn’t really even enough to see it, he wanted to touch Jesus’ wounds.

This may indeed have been the emphasis Thomas used when he said it. But when Jesus showed up, and invited Thomas to put his hand in the wound (rebuking him mildly at the same time), Thomas doesn’t seem to have needed to. Now that he’d seen Jesus himself, he was ready to believe right away. The difference was that this time it was Thomas who was experiencing the presence of Jesus.

In other words, regardless of how he said it, Thomas’ really meant his initial objection with this emphasis:

“Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger in the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

Thomas’s doubts weren’t based on the difference between hearing and seeing, they were based on the difference between other people’s experiences and his own. Thomas trusted his own experiences; he just didn’t trust other people’s.

Jesus concluded by saying, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” In other words, blessed are those who were willing to believe on the basis of others’ testimony what they themselves have not experienced.

This fits with the message of Scripture elsewhere. During the time of the Exodus, God did great miracles. A couple of generations later He did none. Yet He told the generation of the Exodus over and over, “Tell your children what happened to you, so that they will believe in Me.” There are apparently some people who will personally experience God’s demonstrations of supernatural power and others who will have to decide whether to believe based on what they are told.

I believe in the value of first-hand evidence. Hearsay isn’t good testimony. But even in a courtroom we don’t insist that the jurors see everything for themselves! My legitimate desire not to be taken in very quickly becomes the presumption that I am the only fit judge of reality.

The point is, I trust my friends. I believe they’ve had the experiences they say. If I had the same experiences, I’d interpret them as God’s demonstration of His power in my life. Therefore, I can believe based on the fact that He has shown His power in their lives. That should be enough for me. Surprisingly, I find that it is enough.

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Question about Romans 8:37

Quick question about Romans 8:31-37.

It says:

What then shall we say to these things?

If God is for us, who is against us?

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?

Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?

God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Just as it is written,


But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.

Why is verse 37 in the past tense?

And how does it affect the meaning of the verse?

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More about the “peace that passeth understanding”

In a previous post I discussed this verse:

And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

I suggested that when Paul said the peace of God “surpasses all comprehension” (or “passeth understanding”, in KJV), he meant that it surpasses any peace we could attain by understanding.

The more I think about that, the more uneasy I am with it. The more natural interpretation is that there is more of the peace of God than we can understand.

So, suppose the phrase means that the amount of peace surpasses what we can comprehend. How can we understand the verse in that case?

How much peace?

At first glance, I don’t understand how there could be so much of something that I don’t understand how much there is. As a mathematician, I work a lot with the concept of infinity. I understand infinity. So even if God has infinite peace, I can still understand that he has infinite peace. How can God’s peace surpass infinity? How can it surpass understanding?

Maybe Paul means that God’s peace has no conceivable limit. Any limit I can think of, God’s peace exceeds (because infinite peace has no limit).

In fact, it occurs to me that perhaps Paul didn’t have the concept of infinity that we do. We’ve been influenced by the mathematics of infinity, which was developed just a couple of centuries ago. I don’t know if the cultures of Paul’s time even had our concept of infinity. For example, one of the Greek philosophers used the word apeiron, which may mean something like unbounded, but some translators think it means without definition instead. It seems there wasn’t a clear linguistic distinction between infinite and indefinite.

Even the New Testament phrase “forever and ever” doesn’t use a word for infinite: the literal rendering is “to the age of the ages”.

If Paul didn’t have the words or concepts for “infinite” he might have been trying to express what we mean by infinity by saying that the peace of God was without conceivable limits. The “beyond comprehension” may simply be a way of saying “infinite”.

(I can’t even say for sure that the peace of God is infinite. It seems philosophically right to assume that an infinite God would supply infinite peace, but there could be something technically incoherent about peace being infinite.)

A related possibility: maybe Paul means that even if we can understand how much there is of the peace of God in the abstract, we cannot really grasp the enormity of it. Thus the translation in the New American Standard: comprehension rather than mere understanding. We can know that there is an infinite amount of peace, but we cannot really comprehend it. I know what infinity is, but I can’t say I totally get it.

Maybe Paul means we don’t comprehend the peace of God in that we can’t grasp its full relevance for us. The peace of God is more than we can possibly know in experience. Even if the peace of God is supernatural as to its source, it manifests itself to us through our human emotions. (That means that the peace of God as we experience it is not infinite, because we aren’t capable of having infinite peace.)

In this case, Paul could mean that even what we can experience is beyond what we could ever have imagined ourselves experiencing, or he could mean that the actual peace of God, out there, available to us, is so abundant that no matter how much we need there is always enough. The peace of God that I feel is within my comprehension, but the peace of God that is available to me is beyond my comprehension.


Of course, another possibility is that the phrase is an example of hyperbole; that is, Paul is exaggerating to make a point. As a young man I rejected the idea that Scripture could have hyperbole in it, because it seemed to me that hyperbole was a kind of falsehood, and an inerrant Bible could not teach something false. But if hyperbole is a figure of speech then it is not intended to be taken literally and so when it is interpreted correctly, it doesn’t teach something false. When I realized that, I started keeping an eye out for legitimate examples of hyperbole in Scripture. I remember finding a fairly definite example in Song of Solomon somewhere (I forget which verse now). That settled it for me: the Bible can contain hyperbole.

The reason it took me a few years to figure that out, though, is because people around me kept taking verses that seemed to them unlikely to be true and calling them hyperbole to avoid having to take them seriously. That was bad interpretation. Good interpretation would ask whether the original writer / speaker meant it to be taken literally or not.

In that light, is Paul using hyperbole here? Does he mean us to understand that the peace of God is not really beyond comprehension, that there’s a just a lot of it? His statement here reminds me of the passage in Ephesians 3:20 where he says that God can do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. Did he intend us not to take that one literally either? I can’t prove it, but it seems to me likely that Paul really meant what he said in these phrases. He was trying to make his claims as bold as possible because he meant them, not because he didn’t. He didn’t want his readers to water the phrases down. Doing so would be misinterpreting him.

So, personally, I doubt the verse is hyperbole. I’d be willing to change my mind if I learned that the phrase “surpasses all comprehension” was a common idiom in those days with a standard non-literal meaning.

Given all these possibilities, my current tentative interpretation is that Paul means that the peace of God is infinitely abundant so that there is always as much as we need, that this infinite abundance surpasses comprehension in the sense that we can conceive of no limit to it, and that our experience of that peace is finite because all our experiences are finite.

What do y’all think?

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Arguing for or against God’s existence

Just a quick thought about something I will write up in a lot more detail later.

I’ve been reading lots of philosophical arguments about the existence of God this past year — some arguing that God does exist, others arguing that God does not exist.

All of them start from the assumption that we are unbiased, rational observers able to decide on the basis of the evidence we find whether or not God exists. But if Christianity is true, that isn’t really the case.

We have the God-given ability to reason logically (usually), but logical arguments are only as strong as their premises, and premises are only as reliable as the conceptual framework within which they are articulated, and those frameworks are anything but unbiased.

In 1 Cor 2 Paul said:

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 Cor 2:14).

I think the word “appraised” there refers to the fact that our intuition about what is good and bad and right and wrong and real and fake and true and false is gravely distorted by the fall. We have an anti-God bias built into us. We can reason about things, but we can’t properly judge the likelihood of the premises or the significance and relevance of our conclusions.

Earlier, Paul said:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1:18-21.)

Our unbelief is a moral problem, not an intellectual one. I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the philosophical practice of looking for good arguments for or against the existence of God.

I’ve heard that a fideist is someone who believes there is no rational proof of God’s existence; that we just have to take it on faith. I’m not sure I’m a fideist. I think there are good reasons to believe in God, but I believe we are incapable of seeing them without the grace of God to open our hearts to them. Is that fideism? I’m not sure.

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