Faith first

There’s a quiet little Scriptural principle about faith and love that encourages me. Let me see if I can explain it here in a way that makes sense.

I’ll start with my own experience today. This morning, driving into work, I was thinking about 1 John 4:7-21. It talks about God’s nature being love, and how that love is manifested to us and in us. First and foremost, God’s love is shown in the historical fact of Jesus becoming a man and dying for our sins. Second, it is shown as we let Him love others through us.

I began praying that I would show enough love to my students today that it would be a witness of God’s love for them, but as I thought about it, that seemed to assume that my own personal acts of love were somehow more important than the gospel itself. I decided the focus of my prayers shouldn’t be that people would be impressed by my love, but that they would be impressed by His.

Sure enough, just after my first class, I failed in a small but definite way to demonstrate love to one of my students. I tried to get past my own embarrassment and dismay to remember that it’s far more important that students see the love of God demonstrated in the gospel, than that they be impressed by me.

An hour later, in a time of worship and Bible study, several Christians confirmed this (without knowing it) by reminding me of the importance of simply remembering how much God loves me.

1 John 4:7-8 says,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Verses 11-12 say,

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

Clearly, we are told to love one another, and that doing so displays the nature of God to others.

But right in between those two verses, we have these:

By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

In other words: Love others, and expect that to help them see God. But the most important thing isn’t what you do; it’s what God has done for you.

That brings me to the quiet little principle I promised at the beginning.

Scripture refers to faith and love as all-important elements of the Christian life, but they are important in different ways. Faith is where we must always start. Love is where we must always end up.

  • 2 Peter 1:5-8 describes Christian growth as a process which begins with faith and leads step by step to love.
  • 1 Timothy 1:5 says the goal of Christian teaching is love which springs from a sincere faith.
  • Galatians 5:6 says that the Christian life is characterized by faith working through love. In context, the point is that it must start from faith rather than self-effort. Faith sets to work and keeps working until it has worked its way all the way to love.

1 John makes the same point, but it describes faith specifically as faith in God’s love. In receiving the gospel,

… we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. (1 John 4:16.)

This is where all our love starts:

We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19.)

Ephesians 3:14-19 is similar:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

Paul prays for believers to have the faith to see God’s love for them.

So the quiet little principle is this: Faith first, then love. Receive first, then give. Trust first, then obey. My first response to God, even before I give anything to him in ministry, is to receive what He gives me in the gospel. That way I’ll have all I need to give to others, and the focus will be on God’s grace, rather than on my obedience.

Counter culture study, first night

I going to be participating in a Bible Study called Counter Culture, based on a book by David Platt. Here are my thoughts from the first evening, pretty much just as I had them.

  • I am cranky tonight, ready to argue with everyone. I don’t want to be that way. I want to be open to anything God shows me, and expectant and hopeful that he will show me something.
  • Part of the reason I am cranky is because I’m feeling out of place here. But the people at my table are a pleasant surprise. They seem interesting, intelligent, and willing to accept my brand of thinking-about-Christianity.
  • I am reading Ps 102:1-7 [Most of us at the table were there about 15 minutes early]. There is a lot here about despair and sadness. Someone at the table shakes her head at David’s despair, but I want to defend him. If this is inspired Scripture, it seems to me it is important for us to feel this way sometimes. In fact, “feeling” my way through this passage is granting me relief from my crankiness. Instead of feeling cranky, I now just feel sad, and as though I am bringing my sadness to God, and that seems to have been the problem all along. I wasn’t cranky, I was just sad (for no particular reason that I know of), and in denial about it. Now that I’ve owned it, God seems present in the middle of it, as in this Psalm. Actually, I guess there is much to be sad about – the counter-cultural mess we are in is heartbreaking, both in terms of what the world is doing to itself, and the attacks being made on the church, and the church’s somewhat self-destructive responses.
  • We’ve started. PJ is warning us about how much material there is available. Yay! –it looks like there is a lot of substance here. I hope. We watch a video advertising the series. I think I’ll like it. The members of the class make some thoughtful comments in response to the introductory stuff. Looks like this will be a good study.
  • The video / book, like the blurb, says that we are comfortable confronting poverty as Christians, but don’t know what to do with uncomfortable subjects like abortion. That seems backwards for Harvest Time. In our church, everyone knows what to say about abortion. It’s the subjects like poverty, the ones that seem to be politically liberal, that make people uncomfortable. Except poverty in third-world countries. We’re comfortable helping out with that – probably because it seems different than welfare.
  • PJ mentions the importance of focusing on relationships instead of rights. I am not sure where that should lead. Focusing on the rights of others is important. Proverbs 31:8-9. Of course, our relationship with God is far more important, but that’s not because of the priority of relationships, but because of the priority of God. Yet perhaps the priority of love means relationships trump rights. (What I mean, to be clear, is that focusing in a Biblical way on rights is a relational thing, or should be. It is how we ought to relate to the oppressed in love.)
  • There is an interesting section about the relative unimportance of changing people’s behavior vs. affecting eternity. The point is that the gospel is the most important need people have, far more than our changing how they behave. I agree, but I have a few comments. [This is my most important point.] This has things wrong. First, we focus not on eternity away from the world, but on the return of Jesus to this world. That is what we are supposed to be looking for. So it is here, not there, that will matter for us. Second, we are people who are waiting for him to return. No lasting change can happen without that. So it is very true that changing things now is not the most important thing. Third, we don’t work for cultural change in order to accomplish something that only the return of Jesus can accomplish, anyway. Rather, we do it as a demonstration / sign of the work of God, to point people to the coming King. It functions equivalently to the healing / miracles and compassion that Jesus demonstrated while on earth. There is no point is seeing God heal if you aren’t going to be drawn to salvation by it (Mark 2:9-11). There is no point in having a demon cast out only to have seven more return because you didn’t respond in the meantime to what it signified (Matthew 12:43-45). They are signs pointing people to the return of Jesus. Fourth, we can’t do that inauthentically. We can’t show compassion and change culture with the sole motive of being an advertisement for Jesus. What we have to do is to become the sort of people who automatically function as healers of the culture, regardless of whether it makes strategic sense. We are to be faithful and authentic, and leave the fruitfulness to God. Fifth, we know how this works already in one area – marriage counseling. Are we interested in helping people have better marriages? We should be interested in making the culture better to pretty much the same extent.
  • Colossians 4:5-6. I’ve always misunderstood this verse. I thought (because of the way the NASB translated it) that it meant that we salt our speech with grace. But the salt is the confrontational/truth part, and is there along with the grace.
  • We talked about confronting the world in an unloving manner. PJ makes the very good point that just because we have truth on our side, it doesn’t justify our saying it badly. However, we have to consider the Jesus-cleansing-the-temple example and the Isaiah-mocking-the-idolaters example. I don’t know how to blend those (John 2:13-17, Isaiah 44:9-20). The point is, that sometimes things that look unloving are actually loving. I’m pretty sure I agree about some of the unloving examples being unloving, but I’m not sure I can justify in light of these passages that they actually are. [The same issue arose several times the next day in facebook articles: when is it inappropriate to be harsh? When is it inappropriate to be critical of those who are being harsh?]
  • I suspect the apples-of-gold verse is relevant, and the don’t-speak/do-speak to a fool verse (Proverbs 25:11, 26:4-5).
  • 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. We don’t judge the world. Yet we do tell them they are wrong. What is the difference? In context, it must be whether we levy consequences on people for wrong behavior.
  • How does the question of our role in government and democracy apply? Wilson (https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/the-r2k-crucifix-problem.html, https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/ground-level-tactics-of-christian-resistance.html, https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/a-year-of-fresh-outrage.html, for example).
  • Persecution vs. being ignored. First, sometimes we are ignored. That leads us to want to be noticed. That leads us, sometimes, to be obnoxious, or at least shocking. Second, persecution is coming, and, I believe, is already here. Many Christians are annoyed that we call ourselves persecuted. I disagree, because part of persecution is being slandered, and we are. I don’t think we should agree with the slander to avoid being defensive and proud, because that throws our fellow believers under the bus. Yet the Confession chapter of Blue Like Jazz was wonderful. Why do I agree with one and not the other? Maybe it’s the pride inherent in one version and missing from Miller. Third, persecution is sometimes manifested in the attempt to marginalize Christians (Sam Harris for example).
  • Sometimes people react against us because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, says Aaron. I agree. Then I thought: sometimes they react against us because they fear our hostility toward them. Then it occurred to me – if they are afraid of our hostility, then that will actually obscure the conviction of the Holy Spirit from them, so it’s important not to interpose is as an extra barrier. (It’s a very different thing, I suppose, to speak in a way that brings them face to face with God’s.)
  • As I mentioned in the class, if we are going to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), we will sometimes not know whether we are going too far. Therefore, one evidence that we are in the right place as a church is that do not all agree on whether we are going too far. Therefore, also, we need those voices in the church that are worried about our going too far – they keep us safe. It’s just that we need to have the discussion, not shut it down. We need to decide it issue by issue. The naysayers should not attempt to forestall ever getting close to the boundary.

Two modes

A decade ago or so, I was praying about the disorder in my life and realized that what made things difficult was that I had two very different needs. On the one hand, there were projects I was involved in – like raising a family – which required me to be patient and persistent and quietly constructive. On the other, there were battles I was fighting – against various temptations, or against obsessive fears – that required me to be bold and intense. I found that it was hard to be in the right mode at the right time. If I focused on fighting the battles, I would lose my patience with my family; if I settled into raising my family, I would lose my intensity for the battle.

At the time I thought of the story of Nehemiah. As the people of Israel built the wall, they also had to defend themselves against enemies. They worked in teams. One person would build the wall as another stood guard nearby to defend him. Some people carried things with one hand while holding a weapon with the other (Nehemiah 4:15-23). I loved the image of someone with a brick in one hand and a sword in the other. Somehow just having that picture helped me make sense of my life at the time, and keep everything in its place.

At a very different time in my life, the same theme recurred. I wrote about it here.

This semester, I’ve been thinking about having a brick in on hand and a paintbrush in the other. One thing that takes up most of my time right now is my heavy class load. Teaching and administering all my classes requires my building-the-wall mode. The rest of the time, I’ve been working on creative things, things that require me to be in an artistic mode, in which I open myself up emotionally and spiritually. I find that it is hard for me to switch from one mode to the other. When I start getting creative ideas for my side projects, I lose the discipline to stay caught up with grading. When I grind through my daily work, I shut down aesthetically.

A friend of mine pointed out that most artists aren’t well-known for their will-power, and observed that for many artists, will-power gets in the way of creativity. In other words, it’s the same story over again: we can function in one mode, or the other, but it’s hard to switch between modes.

I was reading Psalm 96 last week, and noticed this description of God:

The Lord made the heavens;

Splendor and majesty are before him

Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. (Psalm 96:5-6)

I was struck by the last line: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Strength corresponds to the builder mode. Beauty corresponds to the artist mode. God exemplifies both. I like the fact that when I come into the presence of God, I find One who understands and embodies both my artistic ideals and my constructive impulse. I can draw from him whatever I need, whether it be dogged determination or a sensitivity to beauty.

This week, I ended up in a long argument with several people on Facebook. It was a good argument – everyone spoke civilly, I got the chance to try out some ideas I’d been wanting to explore, and I think everyone learned a lot. Yet, I found it really draining. I ended up feeling angry and guilty most of the day. I felt inwardly hardened.

When I had my quiet time (reluctantly, since I was still feeling a little fierce) I read these verses:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: … ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. ’ (Revelation 2:1-6)

Jesus starts by praising the church for being vigilant warriors for the truth. Then he warns them that they have lost their first love. That could mean either their love for Jesus, or their love for one another. At the moment, I’m inclined to see it as referring to the second. Their love for Jesus was plain to see, expressed in their vehement struggle against false doctrine. It was their love for one another that had been drowned out by the battle.

Again, we have two modes. In warrior mode, everyone looks like a potential enemy. It’s hard to move from warrior to mode to nurturing mode. It’s probably equally hard to move in the other direction.

It’s interesting how well David in the Old Testament managed to be both warrior and shepherd/psalmist.

In any case, once again the question before me is how to move back and forth from one mode to another, as the situation requires. It’s hard to be that emotionally nimble.

How about you? What modes do you find you have to switch back and forth between? What helps you to do so?

The second greatest Christmas present I ever received

The first, of course, is Jesus Himself.

The second was about ten years ago when, in the throes of chronic depression, I woke up on Christmas morning happy. There was no reason for it, it simply happened.

I wasn’t exuberant, I was tranquil. I felt free. Everything felt quietly right. I had no guilt. No worry. I wasn’t even bored. As far as I can recall, it lasted all day, although I noticed it less as I got used to it.

Over the next few days, it gradually faded and the familiar depression returned, but for some reason that didn’t bother me particularly. Normally I would have clung desperately to an experience like the one I’d had, but in this case worrying about holding on to it seemed unnecessary, somehow. Inconsistent, even.

Besides, having felt it once made all the difference.

Partly, it gave me hope. Knowing that it was possible for me to feel like that made it worthwhile to work my way back to it. In future weeks, when I returned to the Scriptures to understand joy, one of the things that I realized was that joy is a process. Psalm 16 said:

You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

I started reading this as saying that I am on the path of life, headed towards the perfect joy that is found in His presence, but not there yet. The fruit of the Spirit is joy, but fruit takes time to grow.

It also let me know what happiness was supposed to feel like. It’s hard to describe why that was so important, but it was. The closest analogy I can come up with is learning something physical. I remember rehearsing dance moves for a school musical. In the first few minutes, we would be shown the pieces of a particular step. We’d copy the way we were shown to move the left leg, the right leg, our bodies and arms. I’d try to do the step myself, holding together all the directions in my mind at once, and it would feel awkward and confused. Then, at about the third or fourth try, there would be a moment. By accident, I’d do it the right way, and from then on it was a lot easier. Once I’d felt it, I could repeat that by memory — not as a complicated series of disconnected body movements, but as one, essential, unified action. The step wouldn’t be perfect yet. I still had to think about how to move the left leg, the right leg, etc., but now those were merely minor modifications to a movement I already knew how to do.

Learning the right kind of tennis stroke or golf stroke worked the same way. Once I’d actually done it, I could repeat the same action by memory, and just tweak the stroke in small ways to get it right.

This was just like that, but instead of the feel of a smooth backhand it was the feel of being happy. I could remember what it felt like, and aim at that.

I’m still not sure why it happened. I speculated for a while that maybe I had some sort of forgotten dream whose effects were still lingering when I woke. These days, I am taking the idea of demons seriously, and I wonder if God lifted some sort of demonic oppression for a day. Maybe it was just the inner metaphorical demons of guilt and fear and despair that He temporarily released me from. Actually, I don’t think the two explanations are mutually exclusive.

The one thing I’m sure of is that I didn’t earn it. It wasn’t because I changed my attitude, or disciplined my thought life or finally surrendered my heart to God. It just happened to me.

Recently I was reflecting on my life so far. Those years of depression were one of five really difficult life struggles I’ve had. Each struggle was incredibly sad in some way. With each one, God eventually delivered me. Each made me stronger somehow, and became an essential part of my life story, so that I became ultimately glad to have gone through it. Even though I was deeply and desperately involved in each struggle, in each case there was something important God did that I could not or would not do for myself. In each case there was a moment of unexpected grace. In the case of depression, that moment was a Christmas morning a decade or so ago.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May God be as bountifully good to you in your need as He was that day to me!

Contaminated by holiness

Recently I mentioned to a few people that in Leviticus, sin is talked about almost as a contagious disease. It makes us unclean and then we cannot approach God. Sort of like being quarantined.

In Leviticus 6, the picture is almost the opposite. It’s as though holiness is the contagion, and it’s dangerous for humans.

Here are verses 8-11:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 

Before the priest removes the ashes from the holy altar, he must don special “protective gear”. After the ashes are removed from the altar, he is supposed to take them outside the camp to dispose of them, but before he does that he has to change back out of the linen clothes, presumably to limit the contact of everyone else with the garments. Even he himself is protected from the linen clothes by special undergarments. Touching the altar “contaminates” the linen garments with holiness, and contact is kept to a minimum.

Here are verses 24-28.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on. Also the earthenware vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken; and if it was boiled in a bronze vessel, then it shall be scoured and rinsed in water.”

Once again, the point seems to be to limit human contact with the holy. Garments that come into contact with it must be washed, but only in the sanctuary area — they should not be taken outside the camp unwashed. Vessels that were used to cook the holy offerings must be either broken or at least scoured and rinsed.

Here is another passage that sounds sort of similar from Ezekiel 46:19-20.

Then he brought me through the entrance, which was at the side of the gate, into the holy chambers for the priests, which faced north; and behold, there was a place at the extreme rear toward the west. He said to me, “This is the place where the priests shall boil the guilt offering and the sin offering and where they shall bake the grain offering, in order that they may not bring them out into the outer court to transmit holiness to the people.

It also reminds me of this passage in Exodus 33:18-24:

Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.

This is all sort of strange and maybe profound.

Am I right in thinking that in Christ we are able to approach the holiness of God without fear or danger?

I frequently ponder the hiddenness of God, the way that he so rarely shows himself to people overtly. I’ve tended to assume we need to learn to see God in the ordinary. But these verses emphasize the opposite idea — the idea that God is anything but ordinary. They make it sound like he hides himself partly because he is protecting us from too direct a revelation.

How do all these thoughts fit together? I’m not sure yet … Feel free to speculate in the comments.

Faith and Reason Conference

I’m very excited right now because I am going to a philosophy of religion conference in just a couple of hours. I haven’t been to a professional academic conference like this for about 25 years, and I am expecting to really enjoy myself, even though most of the talks will probably go right over my head!

The conference is in honor of Richard Swinburne, a giant in the field of philosophy of religion who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. Every paper is supposed to relate to something he’s worked on. Even though it’s in honor of him, participants are free (even expected) to disagree strongly with his views if they want to.

For my own entertainment, as well as to catch myself up on the philosophical basics everyone else there will already know, I looked at each of the descriptions for the papers that will be presented, and tried to figure out what they will be talking about.

I’m going to post what I discovered here, because I think some of you may be curious about what in the world they’ll be thinking about at a philosophy of religion conference.

The papers have been divided into two broad categories: Natural Theology and Philosophical Theology.

Natural theology is the stuff you can prove about God without appealing to things like the Bible or direct revelation or other stuff that only believers would accept. For example, if the natural world by itself is enough to prove the existence of God, then that proof would be a part of natural theology.

I am guessing that the Philosophical Theology category is for papers which do take certain theological doctrines for granted, and then grapple with philosophical questions they raise.

Anyway, here goes.

Natural Theology

The first two papers (Thursday) share a common theme. They discuss the nature of faith and how it is related to reason.

In one unit of the intro-level philosophy classes I teach, we discuss arguments for and against the existence of God. Sooner or later, one of my students will say, “But faith isn’t about reasons and arguments. It’s faith.” The question is whether faith requires reasons, and what kind of reasons count, and whether intellectually assenting to certain facts counts as faith or whether something more – some kind of commitment or trust or what-have-you – is needed.

The first paper on Thursday is explores the idea that faith is trust, which means it is more than merely a type of belief or knowledge. The author says he will compare his definition of faith to the “preference-based account” of another philosopher. Both accounts move beyond a merely doxastic conception of faith.

So then, here’s a new word for some of you!

  • doxastic = belief-related.

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Apparently, Swinburne argued that a life of faith involves belief in certain facts plus an ethical commitment to certain purposes, and said those commitments may be even more fundamental than the beliefs.

The author of the second paper agrees with this.

After developing the idea of these commitments as far as possible, he thinks we will see that they are so central to faith that someone who holds them could be considered to have faith even in the absence of all the doctrinal beliefs and religious attitudes we generally associate with it. (Hmmm … I’m skeptical.) Therefore, he concludes, when we analyze faith we should pay close attention to these ethical commitments, just as much as we do to the doctrines and philosophical beliefs associated with them.

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God created everything, but does the universe exist since then independently from him? And if not, how involved is he in its moment-to-moment activities? For example, is the existence of an object from moment to moment best seen as God recreating the object each moment that it exists?

A question with the same flavor is, what makes things happen? When A causes B, how does A cause B? Occasionalism is the view that God is the real cause behind everything. In one sense, when A causes B, it is really God who is the true cause of B.

The first paper on Friday morning (by a philosophical hero of mine 🙂 ) promises to relate occasionalism to the question of free will and determinism.

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The next paper relates Swinburne’s aesthetic argument to skeptical theism.

Swinburne’s aesthetic argument: Swinburne argues that the universe has order and that makes it likely that it was designed. To show that it has order, one thing he considers is the presence of beauty.

Skeptical theism: One of the arguments against the existence of God is the existence of evil. If an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God existed, so the argument goes, then there would be no evil. There is evil, and therefore such a God does not exist. One way to defend theism against this argument is to find a way to explain how God could allow evil. A different way is to just say that we have no reason to expect we would understand anything about God’s reasons for doing things. Therefore, if we can’t figure out a reason why he might allow evil, it doesn’t matter, because we wouldn’t expect to understand his reasons anyway. This view is known as skeptical theism.

The problem with skeptical theism is that although it undercuts the argument from evil against God, it also seems to undercut several other arguments for God’s existence. The author of this paper says he will explain a view about aesthetics that is similar to skeptical theism, and then show how it undercuts Swinburne’s aesthetic argument in somewhat the same way.

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There have been lots of natural theology arguments designed to show that it is likely that God exists, but for a while many philosophers have felt that none of them work. Swinburne agrees that none of them works by itself, but argues that we can consider their cumulative effect, and that, together, they make it likely that God does exist.

As a key part of his argument, he considers the question of how we choose between competing theories for something, and claims that one of the main criteria is that of simplicity. If one theory is much simpler than another, we should believe it over the other. He argues that based on simplicity, the existence of God is quite likely to be true.

The next paper is going to argue that simplicity is not really the point, but rather, “coherence” is the point, and that that makes Swinburne’s argument less convincing.

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Omnipotence is hard to define. For example, if it just means being able to do anything, then can God make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? Or, can he fail?

One way to define omnipotence is to claim that a being is omnipotent if it can do anything which does not contradict its essential nature. (To create a rock he cannot move would contradict God’s omnipotence, and so he cannot be expected to be able to do it.)

A famous counterexample involves a hypothetical being (a man named “McEar”) whose essential nature is that the only thing he can do is to scratch his ear. If he were to do anything else, it would violate his essential nature. Therefore, the only thing he has to do to be omnipotent is to scratch his ear, and he can do that, so he is omnipotent.

This counterexample means there is still something wrong with our definition.

I think (after googling a little) that Swinburne’s definition of omnipotence relies on the idea that an omnipotent being can bring about any state of affairs as long as the state of affairs does not lead logically to the conclusion that that being did not bring about the state of affairs. This eliminates the heavy stone example, but not the McEar example. Swinburne has since proposed a fix to his definition to deal with McEar. This last paper on Friday explores whether his fix works and whether there are alternatives available.

Philosophical Theology

The first paper on Saturday morning investigates the atonement. We often have the idea that God could not have forgiven us if Christ had not died. The speaker is going to present a particular view of the love of God and argue that it is incompatible with that idea.

My pastor always quotes the Scripture, “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” as though it were embedded into the nature of the universe that there cannot be forgiveness without bloodshed. Actually, though, the verse says:

According to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood,  and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22.)

In other words, it isn’t saying that forgiveness requires bloodshed by its essential nature, but simply that God chose to set the law up that way — and even that is qualified with an “almost”.

So perhaps God could have set things up differently. Perhaps he could have worked things out so that forgiveness was granted through some other act. Or perhaps not.

I’m not sure,then, whether the verse contradicts the speaker’s views or not. I’ll have to wait and see what she says, since in her description of the paper she doesn’t say yet what her view of God’s love actually is. I think it’ll be interesting.

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The second paper on Saturday examines the fact that in liturgy and hymns, “the present tense is used when speaking of Christ’s birth or resurrection”. Why? How should we interpret it? One of the most common theories doesn’t seem to make philosophical sense, and he is going to ask what other options there may be.

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After that we get an exploration of “the Doomsday Argument”. I looked that up online and it appears to be basically this: if the human race were going to be around forever, it would be extremely unlikely that we would just happen to born so close to its beginning. Therefore, it is much more probable that the human race will only be around a short while. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that it will last forever.

Apparently this argument, which seems clearly wrong at first glance, is actually hard to refute.

The speaker promises to identify the key premise and then examine whether it would provide an argument against individual people living forever.

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The final paper looks complicated. It examines the nature of the soul and relates it to dualism and hylomorphism.

Dualism addresses the relationship between the mind and the body (including the brain). For example, Descartes, who was a dualist, believed that we are the combination of two separate things, a mind and a body. The body is a physical object, obeying physical laws, existing in our physical universe. The mind/soul and its thoughts are non-physical, and not subject to physical laws, but exist nonetheless. Somehow our mind and body interact.

Most philosophers today are not dualists. Typically they say that the mind is the brain – a physical object – or else some aspect of the brain, such as its organization or its functionality or something.

Swinburne is a dualist. He argues that one’s soul must be more than merely one’s body and more than merely one’s psychological characteristics (memory, intentions, etc.)

Hylomorphism (matter-form-ism) is an idea of Aristotle’s that I only partially understand. He said that everything is composed of both matter and form together. When you cut down a tree and cut it into timber and use the timber to make a chair, the same matter keeps being re-molded into different forms. We never see just matter or just form. We always see both together. (Reading this back, it makes it sound like a form is merely a physical shape. That’s not what Aristotle meant, but I will go wrong if I attempt to say anything further, so I’ll leave it at that!) Anyway, it’s possible to argue that the soul is the form and the body is the matter of a person.

It looks like this paper is going to compare and contrast a hylomorphic explanation of the mind/body distinction with Swinburne’s explanation.

Of course, this is all especially significant because we believe that the soul is going to survive being separated from the body and later reunited with a resurrected version of the same body. That means the relationship between the soul and the body matters.

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OK, there you have it. Maybe I’ll discover that half of these talks aren’t about what I thought they were going to be about at all! Doesn’t matter – I’m planning on having a blast, regardless.

See y’all later!

P.S. If you were going, which would interest you most? Leave your opinions in the comments.

When we can’t quite say what is bothering us

Recently for my quiet time I read Daniel 2. In that story, Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which disturbed him, and asked the wise men to interpret it. When they asked him what the dream was, he refused to tell them, asking them to say both what the dream was and what the interpretation was. He apparently wanted to be sure they weren’t just making something up. When they couldn’t (and when they mouthed off to him for asking them to) he decided to kill all the wise men, including Daniel.

Daniel and his friends prayed that God would show mercy and give them the answer to the king’s request. That night he had a vision in which God showed him the answer. He praised God, saying

“Wisdom and power belong to him …

It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things;

He knows what is in the darkness,

And the light dwells with Him.”

I often have thoughts or fears that disturb me. Sometimes they are even mysterious and deep and subconsciously powerful, like the king’s dream seems to have been.  It has been a great encouragement to me across the years that God is so wise that he can understand and reveal these profound and hidden things.

But sometimes I feel disturbed, stirred up, agitated, and do not even know why. I have the sense of having an urgent question, but don’t even know what the question is!

The great thing is that even that is not too mysterious for God. If he could give Daniel not only the interpretation of the dream but the knowledge of the dream itself, how much more can he reveal to me what is bothering me, along with its answer! After all, I at least have my question within me somewhere, however ill-defined it may be: Daniel didn’t even personally experience the dream that so disturbed Nebuchadnezzar, and yet God was able to reveal to him everything he needed to know.

In Genesis 40:8, Joseph said, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” It is up to God to tell me how to make sense of the riddles in story of my life. In Daniel 2, we learn than even the riddles themselves belong to God. Not only can God answer all my questions, he can also teach me what the questions should be. (Compare Romans 8:26 and Psalm 77:2-6.)

Is worship for us or for God?

Last week, Victoria Osteen apparently said this:

“… when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God—I mean, that’s one way to look at it—we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That’s the thing that gives Him the greatest joy… So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy … When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

Most people responded by saying this is nonsense. Perhaps it is.

But I want to ask a serious question: Is worship for us or for God?

On the one hand, the whole idea of worship is that we prioritize God and His glory and His pleasure and His will. We stop thinking of ourselves as being important, and focus on Him alone. So clearly, worship is for God. If we focused on our own needs and happiness in worship, it wouldn’t be worship any more.

However … does it hurt God if we don’t worship? No. Does God need my worship? Not at all. God needs nothing from me. That we have the opportunity to freely worship God is a tremendous gift from him to us, not the other way around. It is hubris to think we can bring anything to God, even worship, that he really needs. It is we who need to worship. Worship is created for us, not for God, and for our benefit, not God’s.

Still, when I say that God gives us worship as a gift, to benefit us, what I mean is that focusing on him instead of us is a great benefit to us.

Worship’s benefit is for me; worship’s focus must be on him.

One more thing to add to the mix: God chooses to be blessed by our worship. So in a way, our worship does benefit God — not because he needs it but because he takes pleasure in it.

Practically speaking, if you are tempted to indulge your own desires, it may be a really bad idea for you to think about worship as for your benefit. Worship is your chance to stop thinking about pleasing yourself and think about pleasing God instead. On the other hand, if you are tempted by spiritual pride you should probably stop thinking of worship as something you give to God. We glorify God when we see that he is the source of all good things, even our worship, and humbly receive it all from his hand.

Does the Holy Spirit lead us?

A friend on facebook (Tim Dukeman) recently said:

– I’m deadly serious about this. God doesn’t speak through impressions, feelings, “leadings”, or any of that other nonsense. He speaks through the Bible.

– Nothing in the Bible would lead us to the idea that God speaks in these hyper-spiritual ways. If you hear an audible voice, we’ll talk.

But this “leadings” nonsense is paganism.

– I used to ask God for specific guidance. I have repented of such foolishness.

This was my response:

Tim, have you never read a Scripture and felt vaguely convicted, and then asked God to reveal to you the specific attitude or action you needed to repent of?

I do that all the time. I read something and ask the Spirit to search my heart and bring to mind whatever He wishes. Suddenly I’ll realize, “Oh! I’ve been arrogant. *That’s* not good.” So I’ll repent.

I consider that the leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s Scripturally grounded, but goes “beyond” the Scripture in that He brings to mind something specific in my own life to which the Scripture corresponds. It’s a kind of “revelation” about my own circumstances and heart.

It’s not authoritative. I don’t even have to know whether it was my own insight or something God led me to think of. But it seems silly, after having asked God to guide my thoughts, to say that it is wrong to believe he actually did guide them.

I realize this is not what you meant. But I think it is what you should have meant.

Tim’s further response:

You are correct. That is an important caveat. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin. If you feel convicted of sin after reading Scripture, that’s usually legitimate.

But what I said above stands.

Comments? I have a lot of other opinions on this, but I want to organize my thoughts a little before saying much more.

 

 

Evil spirits

Those of us who believe evil spirits exist tend to think of them as putting thoughts in our heads, but suppose that they also often stir up passions within our hearts? Maybe instead of thinking of them as wandering disembodied intelligences that also have will and desire we should instead think of them as wandering disembodied passions that also have will and intelligence. Maybe along with thinking “I wonder if that thought is from a demon” we should sometimes think “I wonder if that sudden rush of emotion is from a demon”. This view seems to fit the Biblical references to evil spirits about as well as the traditional one. (See 1 Sam 16:14-15,23; 19:9-10 for example.)