Tuesday, January 27, 2009

You Have No Right

Last night, as I was doing my regular devotional Scripture reading, I read the story in Mark 7:24-30 where Jesus meets the Syrophoenician woman. I know when I first read this story it troubled me a bit, Jesus calling the woman a dog and refusing at first to heal her daughter. In the Gospel of Matthew, we get some additional information including Jesus' disciples asking him to send her away, saying that she was "crying out after them." Like many passages of Scripture, this passage has troubled my sensibilities in the past. We don't usually imagine Jesus calling a woman a "dog" and refusing to cast the demon out of a child. To get the full meaning of the word "dog" that Jesus used, I should probably add a fact from my trusty ESV Study Bible text note, that Jesus uses the word "little-dog" here which may suggest a more affectionate term. It also suggests that Jesus is not insulting the woman but testing her faith.

But I was more troubled a little over a year ago when I heard an interpretation of this passage which I think did some serious violence to the text. The person who was leading a Bible study interpreted the passage to be a lesson for the disciples, where Jesus was teaching against racism. I don't deny that there is a lesson for us in everything that Jesus said and did but I don't think the lesson in this passage is about racism. The interpreter who made this claim in leading the Bible study imagined that perhaps the disciples were begging Jesus to send her away because she was a Gentile and were perhaps also using racial epithets, like "dog," to describe her. This interpreter then speculated that Jesus called the woman "dog" in a sarcastic tone of voice to make fun of the disciple's use of the term.

I think the need for such an outlandish interpretation comes from our very American way of elevating individual "rights" above almost any other directive in determining what is right action. And we can't imagine Jesus going against this idea of individual rights which has become so sacred to us. After all, didn't the Syrophoenician woman have the same "right" to have her daughter healed as would a Jewish person?

To this question I have to answer with a strong "no." This woman had no right to have anything done for her by God. I have no right to gain any good thing from God and neither does anyone else for that matter. Jesus was the only one who had any "right" to any good thing and he suffered death on a cross. In fact if we have any "right" to anything at all, it is a "right" to hell which is what we earn by our sins.

I believe that this passage has nothing to do with "rights" and everything to do with "grace" which is undeserved. This woman and her daughter deserved nothing from Jesus and yet they received healing and grace because of the woman's faith and because of our Savior's great love. This encounter between Jesus and this woman also foreshadows the grace which would be made available to all Gentiles as the Gospel spread after Pentecost. Another thing I believe is that the moment "rights" come in when dealing with God, grace is negated. If we have any right to a good thing from God then God is simply holding up his end of the bargain and would be wrong not to do so. But that is not the picture we get from Scripture. When it comes to our "rights" before God, we are like the tax-collector in Luke 18:9-14 who, "standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'" And Christ says that this tax-collector who knew he had no "rights" was the one who went away justified as opposed to the pharisee who thanked God that he was, "not like other men." And the amazing thing is that when God justifies us, through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are told that He does confer a "right" upon us. John, in his Gospel, says, "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13)."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Meet the new board

Well, I finally broke down and bought a snowboard. This after three years of renting whenever I went. Before that I skied for a good number of years but I finally caved into peer pressure and took up snowboarding. I got to test out my new board last weekend at Mountain High ski resort in the San Gabriel mountains north of L.A. The snow was fake and icy but I have to say that I'm quite pleased with my purchase. I liked the feel of this board better than anything else I've used so far. I'm looking forward to trying it out in some real snow in a few weeks when I go with some of my classmates up to Mammoth. Hopefully someday I'll be able to try it out back in my native country on Mt. Hood.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How "total" is our depravity?

God only knows the vileness of the human heart. There is a depth beneath, a hidden spring, into which we cannot pry. In that lower depth, there is a still deeper abyss of positive corruption which we need not wish to fathom.

God grant that we may know enough of this to humble us, and keep us ever low before him! Yet hold, Lord, lest we should yield to despair, and absolutely lie down to die under the black thought of our alienation from righteousness, our naturalization in sin, and the deplorable tendency of our heart to rebel more and more against thee, the faithful and true God! Show us not all our wretchedness. . .

I have often been startled when I have found in my heart the possibilities of iniquity of which I thought I never could have been the subject, in reveries by day or in dreams of the night. All at once, a blasphemy foul as hell has started up in the very middle of offering a prayer so earnest that my heart never knew more fervor. I have been staggered at myself.

When God has called us into the pulpit,—we thought, at one time, we never could be proud if God so honored us,—this has seemed to quicken our step in the black march of our depraved heart. Or, when a little cast down and troubled in spirit, we have wished to leave the world altogether, and have been like Jonah, trying to flee to Tarshish that we might not go to this great Nineveh at our Lord's bidding. Little did we reckon that there was such cowardice in our soul. We have thus found out another phase in our own nature.

Does any man imagine that his heart is not vile? If he be a professing Christian, I much suspect whether he ought not to renounce his profession; for, methinks, any enlightened man, who sincerely looks to himself, and whose experience leads him somewhat to lock within, will surely find, not mere foibles, but foulness that literally staggers him. I question the Christianity of that man who doubts whether there are, in his soul, the remains of such corruption as drown the ungodly in perdition; or whether, though a quickened child of God, he hath another law in his members, warring against the law of his mind.

What! hath he no such battle within that the things he would do he often doeth not, while the things that he would not do he often doeth? Hath he no need to be in constant prayer to God to deliver him from the evil in his heart that he may be more than a conqueror over it at last? I do assert, once more, and I think the experience of God's children beareth me out, that, when we shall be most advanced, and when we come, at last, to sit down in God's kingdom above, we shall find that we have not learnt all that there is to be learnt of the foulness of our nature, and the desperateness of our soul's disease.

"The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds and bruises, and putrefying sores." "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" "Cleanse thou me from secret faults." "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

Perhaps, if we knew more of this terrible evil, it might imperil our reason. Hardly could it be possible for us to bear the full discovery and live. Among the wise concealments of God, is that which hides from open view the depravity of our heart, and the corruption of our nature.

-C.H. Spurgeon
H/T: Pyromaniacs

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Contra Arminians?

As I said in a previous post, I've been thinking a lot lately about certain doubts I have about Arminianism. I embraced Arminian Christianity when I was in college, partially because I had grown up in a Methodist church and partially because it seemed a much more reasonable option to me than Calvinism at the time. Another point I want to make early is that many Christians don't think of themselves as Arminian or Calvinist and both of those views encompass many positions which one may believe in or not. When I refer to Arminianism and Calvinism I refer most specifically to the doctrine of Predestination and the question as to whether any sort of human "free will" plays a role in our salvation. Many Christians choose not to think too much about this and I think that's fine as this question can probably become a distraction from more basic things God calls us to be concerned about. But if a person does choose to think about this issue of "free will," predestination and salvation there aren't too many options in my view.

I entitled this post "Contra Arminians" and not "Contra Arminius" because when I consider the position of Dutch Theologian, Jacob Arminius, and my ministerial hero, John Wesley, they seem much less problematic than where much of modern Arminianism has gone. That is, my problem is not so much with classical Arminianism as with many modern expressions of "Arminianism." In the classical Arminianism of John Wesley, such doctrines as the total depravity of man were strongly affirmed. Arminius said, "In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace." Arminius' statement is a strong affirmation of the total depravity of man and one which I most certainly assent to.

It's not that I've heard an outright rejection of our total depravity and helplessness from any Arminian I know, it's just that I've rarely, if ever, heard this doctrine strongly articulated even among my more conservative Arminian brethren at Asbury Theological Seminary. And what makes this de-emphasis so potentially damaging is not only that it's not true to Scripture but that it will also lead to a lessening of our estimation of the magnitude of our need for and the magnitude of the sacrifice of Christ in His crucifixion. A lessening of our estimation of our depravity can only lead to Pelagianism and the idea that we can in some way contribute to our own salvation. The strongest articulators of this fundamental doctrine are, as far as I know, all Calvinists like John Piper and Al Mohler.

The second doctrine that seems to be under attack in Arminian circles while being strongly affirmed in Calvinist circles is the omniscience of God. While I had no examples of Arminians rejecting total depravity, I have had experiences with Arminians who were flirting with Open Theism and I've heard that some professors at Nazarene Theological Seminary, which should be an Arminian bastion, have embraced this unfortunate heresy. I'm sure that if I talked to an Open Theist they would have some arguments for their belief which might make sense, perhaps even arguments from Scripture. But 2000 years of Scriptural interpretation with a belief in an all-knowing God who is above time is a stronger argument to me. I think it is extremely arrogant to think that we have somehow progressed in such a way that we have now finally discovered the real truth about God's relationship to time.

I'm still an Arminian. But I'm realizing that I may have overlooked some problems in the Arminian system and I may have oversimplified the Calvinist point of view to make it look worse than it really is. I know I can't reject Arminianism because certain Arminians are embracing heresy but it does make me wonder if Arminianism somehow predisposes people toward underestimating our sinful state or underestimating God's knowledge. I think some Calvinists would suggest such a thing and maybe they're right. But I don't think there's anything inherent in Arminian teaching that logically leads to those positions by any kind of necessity.

Well, if you read my ramblings and have any suggestions let me know. God bless you.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Best Biography I've Ever Read

I finished the Jonathan Edwards biography I was reading over Christmas break and it's one the best biographies I've ever read. I would highly recommend it to anyone at all interested in church history. At times it was like reading a devotional although it is not all encouraging stuff as the Great Awakening brought not only conviction of sin and conversions to New England but also a lot of controversy. This biography also turned me into a fan of Jonathan Edwards and has challenged the Arminianism that I've held so dear for a good number of years now. Inspired by the biography, I purchased a copy of Edwards' The Life of David Brainerd and also his The Freedom of the Will. I'm reading The Freedom of the Will with a Calvinist friend here at the medical school. When I say that my Arminianism has been challenged, I say it with much trepidation. Being convinced otherwise on a point like predestination is something that I take very seriously and not something that I ever thought I would change my mind on. But I realize that if anyone will change my mind, it will be Jonathan Edwards. I would like to end this post with a good Edwards quote but I loaned out my copy to a fellow parishioner at Christ's Church. Updates will follow.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Origen on Evil

One theme that has naturally arisen on this blog has been a survey of attempts at dealing with "the problem of evil." This is also known as "theodicy" or justifying God in the face of the evil in the universe. I've wanted to write about this as I struggled greatly with the reality of evil for many years and how horrendous evil in the universe fits with the reality of an all-powerful and perfectly good God. While I've found most arguments made by atheists against the existence of God to be quite unconvincing, the one argument which they make that once had some weight for me was their argument against God's existence from evil. This argument is perhaps most strongly and artfully made by Dostoyevsky's character, Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov. As I said, this argument once affected me strongly but God, by His grace, has brought me to a place where that argument seems no longer to have much of an effect on my convictions. I would be tempted to say that I wasn't even really converted when a strong argument from an atheist would throw me into a serious state of doubt as to whether or not there was really a God.

So with that introduction, I will quote from an article written by one of our professors here at Loma Linda. At Loma Linda students in the school of medicine are required to take religion courses and I'm just beginning a course called, "God and Human Suffering." This article, which was required reading for us, explores the view of the early church on the problem of evil, specifically through the writings of Origen. Origen has been called the greatest intellect of the Eastern Church and lived from around 185 to 254. Origen did have some heretical ideas that were later condemned but I think that Origen's writings are still of great worth.

Much as Origen feels bound and emboldened by Scripture, he is quite able to single out the difference between the Christian view and that of Celsus on a deeper theological and philosophical level. First, evil did not arise by necessity, as if by some flaw in the divine design or by a capricious withdrawal of divine favor. Sin lies instead in the choice and not in the nature of the beings that brought evil into the world. Second, goodness itself has meaning only when the possibility of evil exists. Virtue is not worthy of the name if the option to choose otherwise has been ruled out. This point is as basic to Origen's underlying view of God as it is to his specific understanding of the origin of evil, fighting his battle against the determinism of the Gnostics and others who misinterpret the existence of evil to reflect negatively on God. Third, there is no quick fix for the crisis that arose when evil came to exist contrary to God's will and purpose, as Celsus so condescendingly assumed. "In my opinion he ought to have punished the devil," says Celsus, seeing God easily restricting the devil's range for harming others. But Origen is not fazed by the implied criticism that the God of the Christians lacked the power to put the devil in his place. In his view, there is more depth to God and more subtlety to the nature of evil than for such a crude remedy as power to succeed. "It was necessary for God," Origen answers, "who knows how to use for a needful end even the consequences of evil, to put those who became evil in this way in a particular part of the universe, and to make a school of virtue to be set up for those who wished to strive lawfully in order to obtain it."

-Sigve Tonstad in Andrews University Seminary Studies.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

"The very essence of reality"

The Charity sermons, simple and practical as they were, stood close to the heart of Edwards' theological enterprise. The very essence of reality, he emphasized in his more abstruse theological notebooks, was the intertrinitarian love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The only possible reason for such a perfect being to create the universe was to extend that love to other, imperfect, beings. So, as he explained briefly to the parishioners of the river town: "There in heaven this fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it. There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love."
- From George M. Marsden's biography, Jonathan Edwards, A Life.