Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Church Write-Up: The Sin Unto Death

Last Sunday, at one of the church services that I attended, the pastor was attempting to explain I John 5:16, which states (in the KJV):

“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.”

What is the sin that is unto death?  The pastor defined that in a variety of ways.  First, he said that it was apostasy, or leaving the Christian faith.  That is interesting, considering that he was defending the eternal security of the believer on the basis of John 10:28-29, where Jesus affirms that nobody shall take his sheep from his or his Father’s hand.  Second, the pastor defined the sin unto death as blasphemy, which is unforgivable.  The pastor said that this is why we should be careful about what we say when we are angry, particularly when we are angry with God: we do not want to blaspheme and commit a sin that is unforgivable.  Third, the pastor conceptualized the sin unto death as willful, defiant unbelief: refusing to believe in Jesus (as the New Testament defines him) or in the existence of an afterlife with rewards and punishments.  The pastor said that we should not waste our time praying for people who have sinned unto death: their mind is made up, and they cannot be helped.  Rather, we should spend time helping and praying for believers who struggle: Christians whose marriage is on the rocks, for example.

I am in between computers right now, so I do not have access to my Word Biblical Commentary.  But, just looking at the verse, I wonder how it can be rehabilitated, or interpreted in a less-than-dire light.  The verse seems to be saying that there are some people for whom we should not pray, presumably for restoration from sin.  That is a difficult saying.  Can we, with our own limited perspectives, judge anyone as beyond hope?

Here are some thoughts—-not necessarily answers, but thoughts:

A.  Last week, I was reading blog posts by a husband and a wife, both of whom are Christians.  The wife was praising her husband on her blog, and the husband then praised his wife on his blog.  The wife said on her blog that there was a time in which she left the faith, but her husband kept praying for her, and she returned.  I think that the husband did the right thing, but does it gel with I John 5:16?  We can say that she obviously had not committed the sin unto death because she returned to the faith: there must have been some desire for or adherence to the Christian faith deep down inside of her, for she did return.  How, though, can we judge anyone as having committed the sin unto death, when we do not know everything that is going on in a person’s mind?  I John 5:16 seems to assume that we can know who has committed the sin that is unto death, and that we should not pray for that person.

B.  There may be some kernel of wisdom in I John 5:16, assuming I am understanding it correctly.  In a Bible study that I attended in college, we were going through the Gospel of Luke.  We were discussing Luke 9-10, in which Jesus offers instructions to his disciples about preaching in towns.  Someone in the group, in response to this passage, asked if Christians should spend their time witnessing to a person who is unreceptive, or if they should move on to another person, as the disciples moved on from town to town and shook the dust off their feet at towns that were unreceptive.  The leader thought that was a valid question: so many people need to hear the Gospel, he reasoned, so perhaps we should not spend a lot of time on people who are not interested.  There may be wisdom to that, yet I have known of Christian wives who have prayed for non-Christian husbands for decades before their husbands finally believed.  They did not give up hope.

C.  The web site where I looked up I John 5:16 also lists Jeremiah 7:17; 11:14; and Jeremiah 14:11, in which God exhorts the prophet Jeremiah not to pray for the people of Judah.  It must either be hopeless at that point, or God does not mean what God says there but is using hyperbole to express how frustrated God really is.  Prophets did intercede for Israel when it was especially bad.  When does one move from being simply bad, to having committed a sin unto death (and I am not asking this in search of a loophole)?  Plus, had Israel committed the sin unto death, since Jeremiah prophesied that God would restore Israel, showing Israel still had a positive future in store?  Or did that specific generation of Israelites—-the one in Jeremiah’s day—-commit the sin unto death?

D.  Paul (or the character of Paul, for liberal scholars) says he used to be a blasphemer in I Timothy 1:13, so, obviously, blasphemy is forgivable.  In Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:28, and Luke 12:10, Jesus says that there are blasphemies, such as speaking against the Son, which can be forgiven, but that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or the age to come.  That said, like the pastor (I gather), I have been slightly dissatisfied with the typical evangelical claim that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is merely an attitude rather than an act of speech.  There may be something to that, but Jesus, after discussing the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, criticizes careless words and affirms that people will be judged over their words (Matthew 12:36-37).  I definitely do not want to go so far as to say that spurting out careless words against God in a state of rage (even a continuous state of anger) is unforgivable, but I do think that Jesus’ emphasis on words needs to be addressed.

E.  After hearing the sermon, a lady I know, who seems to consider herself a non-believer, was talking about the afterlife.  She expressed dismay that so many people get away with evil in this life, and she hoped that there was karma in the afterlife.  Shortly thereafter, she saw the movie Hacksaw Ridge, and she respected and admired the humility and love for others (even his persecutors) of the movie’s Christian protagonist, Desmond Doss.  I do not want to write myself into a pit, trying to qualify everything that I say, but there are non-believers who are open to ideas that Christians claim as their own, or as from God in origin.  (There are non-believers, of course, who would dispute that those ideas are distinctly or uniquely Christian.)  But some are not open to those ideas (or some of them).  Should we really maintain that God gives up on them, and that it is hopeless to pray for them?

I’ll stop here.  Remember, if you choose to respond (here or by e-mail), I am in between computers, so it may take me a while to read what you have to say.  Thanks!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Write-Up: Seeking Refuge

Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir.  Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis.  Moody, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Stephan Bauman and Matthew Soerens work for World Relief, which partners with churches for the purpose of international relief and development.  Dr. Issam Smeir is a counselor who is a specialist in trauma, specifically for refugees, torture victims, and children who have been abused and neglected.

As the title indicates, this book is about refugees.  It addresses a variety of questions: Who are the refugees?  What are they fleeing?  What challenges do they face in the United States, and how has the church helped them to adjust?  Do refugees take jobs away from American citizens and burden the system?  And does allowing them into the United States increase the threat of radical Islamic terrorism on U.S. soil?

The book effectively makes the points that it wants to make.  It tells anecdotes that demonstrate the human face of the issue.  Its description of the economic and psychological problems that many refugees face is vivid.  Its critique of the claims that refugees may pose a terror threat and burden the U.S. system are well-documented.  The book draws from studies, including studies from such conservative organizations as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.  (Yet, one should remember that there are divisions within the right over issues.)  The book also stresses the importance of remembering cultural differences as the church seeks to assist refugees in the United States, and it encourages Christians to view refugees as an opportunity, as they can replenish the church as millennials leave it (though the book stresses that the church should not help refugees primarily to increase its numbers).

Although the book effectively critiqued the argument that refugees may pose a terror threat if they are let into the United States, there were times when it seemed to argue that this issue does not matter: God wants us to help the alien, and we should obey, period.  The book likens those who want to increase restrictions on the entrance of refugees for national security reasons to the Pharaoh of Exodus 1, who had national security concerns about the foreign Israelites in Egypt.  Their theological and religious arguments certainly deserve consideration, but they could have been developed further.  There are places in the Bible that call upon God’s people to trust in God: for example, prophets in the Hebrew Bible exhorted Judah to trust God for her national security rather than entering into foreign alliances.  At the same time, there are biblical passages that encourage wisdom in the pursuit of self-protection (i.e., the Proverbs), and those, too, deserve consideration in discussions about immigration.

While the book was informative, some topics could have used more detail.  What happens to the refugees who are waiting to enter the U.S., who are not allowed to enter, or who lack financial resources?  The book addressed this tangentially, but not always in detail.  More detail would have strengthened the book’s case that help is necessary.  While the book provided some details about the process by which the U.S. Government decides which refugees to admit, it should have explained what questions it asks.  Some argue that it is difficult to discover the background of some of the refugees, so the book could have further alleviated concerns about the refugees by explaining how the Government learns more about them, beyond saying that this agency compares notes with that agency.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Church Write-Up: Finding One's Calling

The pastor at one of the churches that I attended last Sunday was talking about finding one’s calling.  He said that we should be who God made us today rather than trying to be somebody else.  The pastor appealed to the “David and Goliath” story in the Bible and how David defeated Goliath in his own way, rather than by wearing Saul’s heavy armor, as King Saul recommended.  The pastor said that we should pursue our passions (good ones, of course) and hopefully channel them into a calling, even if our passions seem unusual; the pastor shared that his passion is tea, which is unusual in Oregon.

The pastor also highlighted the importance of receiving counsel, since our own vision can sometimes get blurry, and we make excuses for not pursuing our calling: past failure, apathy, etc.  Mordecai gave Esther counsel when he exhorted her to have a conversion with the King of Persia that could save the Jewish people from annihilation.  Yet, the pastor also made points that indicate that other people can be unhelpful, in that they discourage our dreams.  He told the story of Michael Jordan, who was but from his high school basketball team but still felt deep-down that he was meant to play basketball.

Moreover, the pastor encouraged us to try out service opportunities, which can perhaps help us to discover talents that are unknown to us.  He said that the church has service opportunities for introverts, extroverts, and even non-believers and people unsure about what they believe.

The pastor also remarked that, in some cases, work may be a drudgery to people because they have not found their true calling.  At the same time, he also said that our past work experiences can equip us for our calling by giving us skills.

Here are some personal reactions:

—-I was thinking of the point about unpopular (yet good, or not necessarily bad) passions earlier this past week.  I was reflecting about how I love the TV show Touched by an Angel, but many academic types—-including evangelical academic types—-would probably deem me unsophisticated or naïve for so doing.  There are some episodes that I used to like but did not like as much in my most recent viewing.  Still, I am enjoying some of the episodes, including ones that I used to dislike.

—-I question whether all good passions can be channeled into some profound calling.  I enjoy watching Touched by an Angel, but I do not feel called to the entertainment industry.  A lot of sweat, pain, and toil go into the production of shows and movies.  Perhaps one way that I can channel my interest into a calling is by blogging about episodes that are meaningful to me, as I have done with shows in the past.  For a variety of reasons, though, my passion for blogging has waned over the years.  Nowadays, I obligate myself to write a weekly Church Write-Up about the church services that I attend (and, to be honest, I am tempted to write these reflections in a personal journal rather than on my blogs), and to review the books that are sent to me to review, and other books that I have read.  I am required to write reviews on my blog about the books that are sent to me, and I write about the other books on my blogs to make a personal record of what I have read and learned from books.

—-Drudgery may not indicate that one has not found one’s calling.  I think that life often entails doing work that one does not want to do.  The pastor in a past sermon referred to doing chores that we would rather not do as “adulting.”  There are many mornings in which I have to drag myself out of bed because I do not feel like working on my dissertation.  But it is the task in front of me at this stage of my life, and I want to finish what I started.

—-Should I be the way that I am, or the way society says I should be?  I have Asperger’s, and I feel that I need at least to try to be like others to get anywhere in life.  And my impression is that many Christians look down on people who are abnormal or lack talent in certain areas, rather than truly believing that God can use them, too.

—-That said, I appreciated how the pastor recommended the service programs.  I may pick up the brochure that the pastor recommended.  I did not check the box asking to be assigned a service project, since I do not drive and what if it is at a place that I cannot access?

—-The pastor said that many Christians leave church or the faith due to broken relationships.  I can identify with that.  I have been disillusioned with many Christians (which is not to say that I think I am perfect, or even better than them), and with God’s command (as I understand it) that I have some affection for them.  The pastor recommended a seminar on conflict resolution.  I may attend that to learn some social skills.

—-I hand-wrote this before typing it.  I have not felt like typing on a computer that much lately.  Even with my dissertation, I am spending a lot of time handwriting, as of late.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Write-Up: Answering the Toughest Questions about Suffering and Evil

Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, with Christopher Greer.  Answering the Toughest Questions about Suffering and Evil.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

In this book, Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz address the problem of evil from a Christian perspective.

The book has its assets:

—–The back cover of the book says that the authors “leave enough space—-and grace—-for you to keep wrestling, asking, and seeking truth.”  Such an approach is preferable to Christian books that act as if they have all the answers and have closed the book on the subject.

—-The book has stories about evil and how the authors (and the sufferers) believe that God has been at work in the midst of it.

—-The opening chapter, “If God Created Everything, Did He Create Evil?”, is compelling in that it does not just settle for standard Christian answers but tries to go deeper.  It also delves into Christian views that evil is a deficiency or a corruption of the good.

—-The book vividly demonstrates how acts and thoughts that seem only minutely evil can have profound, corrupting consequences.

—-The chapters open with anecdotes, often personal anecdotes, that draw in the reader and set the stage for the discussion.

—-While the humor was a little overrated, the humor in the biographies about the authors was actually quite funny.

—-The book’s contrast between God being our strength in our weakness (the Pauline view) and us becoming stronger as a result of our suffering and failures is poignant.

—-The book’s point that people who escape certain forms of suffering should thank God that they have been recipients of divine grace (not salvific, but temporal) may not answer a lot of questions, but it may be a useful way to approach a question: should people thank God for their fortune in a particular case, when others suffer misfortune?

Here are some critiques:

—-The book’s justification of divinely-sanctioned violence in the Bible is weak.  The chapter opens with a story about a lawyer who challenged one of the authors about the slaughter of innocents in the Bible (i.e., Canaanite children).  The book did not really address that issue, though.

—-If the authors are correct that suffering performs an important role in this world  (i.e., it manifests God’s respect for free will, it allows people to build character), why did God not create the world with suffering, and why will God eliminate suffering in the eschaton?  What is lacking in this book is a panoramic look at the question of suffering.

—-The authors blame a lot of suffering on the Fall.  They should have addressed evolutionary history, which some believe casts question on whether there even was a historical Fall.

—-In response to the question of why bad things happen to good people, the authors echo the common Christian response that there are no good people.  Where exactly are they going with that?  Are they implying that God punishes everyone for human flaws or sins?

—-The book offered helpful advice about what not to say to people who are suffering, but it was rather short on advice about things to say and do for sufferers.  The book also should have been more specific and practical about how to help people in the world.

—-The book had stories about people who died when they were young and did not get to fulfill their vocation.  They did well to tell those stories, but such stories, in my opinion, amplify the theological problem of suffering.  What purpose does it serve for so many people to die when they are young?

—-The book was honest and had some good insights, but, overall, it rehashes a lot of the typical Christian answers to the problem of evil.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Write-Up: City of God, by Augustine

I read Augustine’s City of God over the last four months.  Here are some things that I found interesting (not that this post does justice to this mammoth work):

A.  The back cover of my Penguin Classics edition states:

“Augustine discusses first the ancient polytheistic religion of Rome; secondly, the arguments of the Greek philosophers, with emphasis on the Neo-Platonists; last, creation, time and eternity as presented in the Bible.  His thesis is that Rome, as the earthly City of God, should bring together the revelation of the Bible, the wisdom of Greek philosophy and the honour and dignity of her own tradition, and so enable the members of her church to enter into the eternal City of Heaven through regeneration in Christ.”

I definitely saw in the City of God the first point that this quotation makes: that Augustine critiques pagan polytheism and philosophy.  I did not see the second point, at least not entirely.  That is not to say that it’s not there, but that I do not recall it.

Augustine is responding to the pagan argument that Rome fell because it converted to Christianity and thus displeased the gods.  Augustine mounts many arguments against Greco-Roman pagan religion in City of God, such that he was practically the Robert Ingersoll of his day, at least when it came to pagan religions.  One argument that Augustine makes is that paganism fails even on its own assumptions.  Is misfortune a sign of displeasing the gods, according to Greco-Roman religion?  Then, Augustine inquires, what about the misfortunes that pagan Rome suffered back when it was pagan, and piously pagan, at that?  Christianity, by contrast, has a way to account for suffering, even of the righteous.  According to Augustine, suffering encourages people to be humble and to value eternity.  Moreover, Augustine believes that God gives and withholds temporal blessings for a reason: God gives them to show that divine providence actually exists, while God withholds them to encourage people not to worship God primarily for temporal rewards.  Augustine asks other questions, as well: If the Greek and Roman gods are not as immoral as they are depicted, as some pagans argue, then why did these gods (according to pagan writings) demand that cities put on plays depicting the gods’ immoral acts?  For Augustine, the answer is that these gods are demons, perversely delighting in such plays about them.  If the entire world is God or indwelt by a divine World Soul, does that mean that anything we trample underfoot is God?  Augustine’s arguments go on.

The second point—-about Augustine wanting Rome to combine the Bible, Greek philosophy, and Roman tradition—-is somewhat present.  Obviously, Augustine favors the divine revelation that is in the Bible.  On philosophy, Augustine takes a rather dim view of it, seeing it as internally contradictory and often unreasonable.  He values Platonism because it comes close to Christianity in certain concepts (i.e., creation), and he even suggests that Plato may have encountered Judaism, but he maintains that Platonism falls short.  At times, he argues that Christianity is consistent with certain pagan philosophical ideas, against pagan arguments that Christianity makes no sense, on such doctrines as the physical resurrection of the dead.  Overall, though, while Augustine is quoted as saying that Christianity should plunder the wisdom of Greek philosophy, his view of philosophy in City of God seemed to be dim.  On Roman virtues, Augustine acknowledges them, but he also points out a lot of Roman vices, or he argues that the virtues fall short (e.g., he asks what makes suicide so virtuous, as some Romans argue, when one would think that endurance would be more virtuous).

That second point sounds like Augustine was promoting some sort of Christian theocracy.  Maybe he had that agenda, but it did not stand out to me in City of God.  Rather, Augustine presented the City of God as God’s righteous people, going back to the antediluvian times.  The City of God is also eschatological, in that it is the heavenly city where the saints will ultimately go.

B.  Augustine extensively picks apart Greco-Roman paganism, but does he offer a positive case for Christianity?  I do not recall that much of a positive apologetic being presented in City of God.  Augustine contends that the barbarians’ preservation of the Christian churches when they invaded attests to the truth of Christianity, on some level.  He tells anecdotes of Christian miracles he has seen and heard about, often revolving around Christian saints.  He says that it is a wonder that so many people have embraced the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, when that runs contrary to prominent pagan philosophical ideas.  Augustine goes out of his way to explain apparent oddities in Christianity, but, in some cases, he seems to rest on mystery.  Augustine says that murder and suicide are wrong, but then he has to deal with Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Samson killing himself with the Philistines.  Augustine essentially says (as I understand them) that these actions must be right because God commanded them.  Augustine does not strike me as a Josh McDowell sort of apologist, one who attempts to show that Christianity has a solid evidential foundation.  He comes across as more of a fideist, yet he also tries to present Christianity as internally reasonable.

C.  Augustine is renowned for believing that the male sex drive is a result of original sin.  In City of God, he believes that God before the Fall intended Adam and Eve to have sex, in order to be fruitful and multiply.  But they would have sex without the male sex drive being part of the sexual activity.  Augustine appears to be pro-marriage, here.  At the same time, he seems to think that Christian singleness is preferable.  Augustine attempts to refute an interpretation of I Corinthians 3:10-15, which talks about building on good and substandard materials and the prospect of some people being saved through fire.  As is the case today, some people back then were saying that professing Christians can enter the Kingdom of God without living a holy life, for they would be saved through fire.  Augustine responds that I Corinthians 3:10-15 does not teach this, but rather is about holy people who marry, and will experience the loss of marriage when they enter the Kingdom of God.

D.  The Protestant Reformation is often considered to be a return to Augustine.  Augustine believed in original sin (i.e., a severe human propensity towards evil) and thus the necessity for divine regeneration, whereas Aquinas supposedly had a stronger view of human free will.  On justification, however, Augustine in City of God came across as Catholic: he did not stress God imputing righteousness onto the believer and considering the believer forensically righteous, but more the believer becoming practically holy and righteous through the power of God.  When Paul in Romans 10:3 states that the Jews wrongfully sought to establish their own righteousness rather than accepting the righteousness of God, Augustine does not appear to define the righteousness of God as God’s free gift of imputed righteousness, as a number of Protestants do.  Rather, he treats it as the practical righteousness that God enables believers to have, through the Holy Spirit.  He undoubtedly believed in divine forgiveness of sins, though.

E.  Augustine is sometimes presented as proto-Calvinist, or so he came across to me when I first learned about him years ago.  Augustine believed in predestination: that God chose those who would be saved.  At the same time, at least when it comes to Lucifer and the demons before their rebellion and pre-Fall Adam and Eve, Augustine appears to have a stronger (or more libertarian) view of free will than, say, Jonathan Edwards.  Jonathan Edwards argued that something needed to cause Adam and Eve’s sin, since choices cannot pop out of nowhere, and he maintained that what caused it was a withdrawal of divine grace.  Augustine, by contrast, seems to maintain that Lucifer and the demons and pre-Fall Adam and Eve could make a genuine choice for God or against God.  Still, when it comes to the eschaton, when saints will be unable to sin, Augustine affirms that their inability to sin at that time will be consistent with them having free will.  In this case, Augustine comes across as compatibilist: that the saints will act according to their choice (to be righteous), even if they will be unable to choose otherwise (to do evil), and thus they technically have free will.

F.  A number of progressive Christians have presented Augustine as a Christian thinker who did not take the creation account of Genesis 1 literally.  Maybe he did not, in another writing.  In City of God, however, he defends a young age of the earth against Greek views that the earth was much older.  Moreover, while Augustine does maintain that several events in the Book of Genesis have a deeper, allegorical meaning that concerns Christ and the church, he still believes in their historicity.  For example, Augustine attempts to answer a skeptical question about Old Testament figures having advanced ages when they had children.  Did they seriously refrain from sex until they were a hundred or so years old?  Augustine replies that, of course, they had sex and children long before that, but that Genesis is only mentioning the child they had when they were at an advanced age.  The goal of the genealogy, after all, is not to list all of the children that the people had, but only the children who led up to Noah, or Abraham.  The children listed in the genealogy are not necessarily the oldest, but they are the ones who lead up to Noah, or Abraham.  That made sense to me at first, but then I noticed that Genesis 5:32 appears to say that Noah was five-hundred years old when he had Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  As far as I am aware, those were his only children.  In light of that consideration, the question that Augustine was addressing still stands (unless one wants to say that Noah had children before them, and they died prior to the time of the Ark and the Flood).

G.  Augustine maintains that both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Septuagint are divinely-inspired, even though he is aware that there are clear differences between them.  Looking at Book 4, Chapters 13-14, Augustine seems to vacillate between saying that we should go with the Hebrew when it contradicts the Septuagint on genealogical ages, and saying that the LXX is divinely-inspired.  Another thorny issue, for Augustine, is Genesis 6:2.  Augustine interprets the sons of God who have sex with the daughters of men in that verse as the sons of Seth, the righteous line, not as angels.  But the LXX and the Book of Enoch regards the sons of God as angels.  Augustine argues that the sons of God were human yet had some sort of angelic status, due to their righteousness.  Regarding I Enoch, Augustine expresses doubts about its authenticity, though he does believe that Jude 1:14 (which is in I Enoch) is an authentic saying of Enoch.

H.  Regarding Augustine’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Augustine believes that it points to Christ.  In some cases, Augustine believes that the text’s Christological meaning is in addition to its historical meaning.  Augustine appears to believe that Hannah’s song in I Samuel 2 is about the birth of Samuel, on some level, but that, even more, it is about Christ.  Augustine argues that some aspects of Hannah’s song do not fit her or Samuel: Hannah says in v 5, for example, that the barren bore seven sons, whereas she bore Samuel and five other children, not seven (see v 21).  For Augustine, Hannah’s song is ultimately about Christ overturning evil.  Augustine also regards Samuel as a type of Christ, in that Samuel, technically, was not legally qualified for the Aaronic priesthood; similarly, Christ would be a non-Aaronic priest.  While Augustine believes that some texts in the Hebrew Bible have a double application, there are many cases in which he argues that the Christological meaning is the only meaning.  When Malachi 1:11 affirms that God’s name will be glorified among the Gentiles, Augustine sees that as a prediction of the Gentiles coming to Christ, nothing else.  Other points: Augustine regarded the temporal blessings for the righteous in the Old Testament as symbolic of eschatological, spiritual blessings for believers in the afterlife.  Augustine also had an interesting interpretation of Malachi 4:6, which states that Elijah will turn the heart of the father to the son and the son to the father.  Augustine notices that the nouns are singular in the Greek and thus interprets the Father as God the Father and the son as Jesus Christ.  For Augustine, the passage is about God’s exaltation of Jesus.  Augustine believed that the Jews would eventually embrace Christ, in response to that.

I.  Augustine was an amillennialist, in that he believed that the millennium of Revelation 20:2-7 is a current reality rather than a paradisaical earthly kingdom that Jesus will rule after his second coming.  According to Revelation 20:2-7, Satan is bound during the millennium, and Augustine leans heavily on Matthew 12:29/Mark 3:27, in which Jesus implies that he is binding the strong man (Satan) in his earthly ministry, at his first coming.  This view can inspire a question: What about the New Testament passages that indicate that Satan is active during the church age (II Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2; I Peter 5:8; etc.)?  How is this consistent with the amillennialist belief that Satan is currently bound?  Augustine attempts to offer explanations.  Whether or not they are convincing is another question.  Looking at these sections (Book 20, Chapters 7-8) a second time, I see his argument that Satan is bound in the hearts of the impious, and that Satan is limited in his ability to tempt.

J.  Some Christians nowadays assert that we should not love ourselves but should love God and neighbor; or, more accurately, they say that God does not command us to love ourselves but assumes that we do so and exhorts us to love others as ourselves.  Self-love plays a significant role in City of God, however, for Augustine affirms that Christianity leads to personal happiness.  For example, Augustine argues against the view that people can live unholy lives while atoning for their sins through forgiveness of others and giving alms, and he does so through an appeal to I Corinthians 13, which states that giving to the poor without love is nothing.  Essentially, Augustine argues that those who who give to the poor while living an unholy life are not loving themselves, for they are not pursuing what is good for themselves.  In this case, Augustine interprets a chapter that is about love for others in reference to enlightened egoism.

I’ll stop here.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Write-Up: Inspirational Explosion from Deep Within

Leroy Hubbert.  Inspirational Explosion from Deep Within: God’s Anointed Touch.  Xlibris, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

Leroy Hubbert served in the U.S. Air Force and was in the military for 22 years.  This book contains some of his life story and experiences, his spiritual Facebook statuses, his poetry, his interactions with Scriptures, his prayers, and his visions.

His spiritual Facebook statuses were like aphorisms, only they were longer.  Reading them was like reading Confucius or the Tao Te Ching, only they are from an evangelical Christian perspective.  They are statements that require some thought and meditation to digest.

His poetry was all right.  The stanzas had four lines.  The first two lines rhymed with each other, and the last two lines rhymed with each other.  Or they almost rhymed.  It took talent to write those poems, but the rhythm was not always consistent, which was a distraction.

The interactions with Scriptures, the prayers, and the narrations of Hubbert’s visions could have used an editor.  A lot of times, they read like my translations of ancient Greek in classes: awkward.  They also had typos and misspellings, and the sentences were long.

The parts of the book about Hubbert’s life story and experiences were good in terms of their content, in that Hubbert talked about his spiritual struggles and his joys.  Hubbert communicates with honesty, but the narrative style could have used some work.  It ran into the problems that I mentioned above, plus it could have been more vivid and compelling.

In terms of the spiritual substance of the book, Hubbert says a lot of things that other Christians have said, about waiting on God, God’s plan for our lives, how trials produce character, and the importance of forgiveness.  Hubbert’s application of these principles to his own journey is respectable.  His point that forgiveness is turning over people and situations to God has been said by Christians before, but it resonated with me as I read Hubbert’s book.  There were times when Hubbert shared a fairly deep concept, as when he said that praising God “brings understanding to why we have been called” (page 173).

The book is all right and may help people (it probably has already), but, as I said, it could use some editing—-or at least parts of it could.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author.  My review is honest.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Church Write-Up: Pie-Eating Contest, Forgetting, and Salt

For church last Sunday, I attended the evangelical church that I call the “Pen Church” (since I get a free pen there), and the African-American Baptist church.  In this post, I will talk about something that happened to me at the Pen Church, then I will discuss the sermons at the churches.

A.  I went into the Pen Church, and a woman asked me if I wanted to be part of some drawing.  I initially declined, but then I asked if it cost anything, and she said no, so I got a ticket with a number.  I was hoping that my number would not be called, but I had a vague sense deep-down that it would be.  And, sure enough, it was the first number that was called!  I went up to the stage, three other numbers were called, and all four of us participated in a pie-eating contest, with pumpkin pie.  This was the first pie-eating contest that I had ever done.  There was a fork in the pies in case we wanted to eat them with a fork, and a towel in case we wanted to stuff our faces!

I had some strikes against me.  For one, this was around 9 A.M.  I do not have much of an appetite in the morning.  That’s why I don’t eat breakfast, even though people insist to me that it is the most important meal of the day.  I’m just not hungry in the morning, and I feel queasy when I eat.  Second, this was pumpkin pie, which has a weird sweet taste.  Third, while I like pumpkin pie, I do not like downing it really quickly.  The clock started, and I took my bites and chewed.  I could not down it quickly, since I needed to chew and swallow my food!  I lost the contest, but it turned out that I did about as well as the others.  Nobody finished their pie.  The winner only finished half of it in the allotted time!  I finished a little over a fourth of it.

B.  The sermon at the Pen Church was about the Joseph story and about how God can use the things of our past that we would rather forget for God’s glory and to help others.

Earlier this past week, I was reading a book about forgiveness.  Reading that book, and hearing the sermon at the Pen Church last Sunday, reinforced in my mind a question that I have frequently asked myself: if I could take an eraser and erase the painful memories from my mind, would I do so?  A lot of times, forgiveness is presented as forgetting the pain that we have experienced from others.  We are not to dwell on the past, we are told, but we are to stay in the present and move on.  But I think of what Captain Kirk said in Star Trek V, when the Vulcan Sybok offered to take away Kirk’s pain: “Our pain makes us who we are.  If we lose that, we lose ourselves.  I do not want you to take away my pain.  I need my pain!”  My pain has produced negative effects: resentment, jealousy, hatred, and a dearth of hope.  But, at times, it has produced positive effects, such as compassion for others.  And, as the pastor said, what would Joseph’s story be like without the painful aspects of his life?  He would look like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but that was not the case, for Joseph suffered.

In terms of how I believe I should deal with the past, I do not think that I should dwell on negative memories as much as I do.  But I can still acknowledge that they are there and that God can use them.  They are a part of me, whether I dwell on them or not.

C.  The sermon at the African-American Baptist church was about how Christians are the salt of the earth.  They are to pray for people, live lives of dignity and righteousness, and make people thirsty for what Christians have, as salt makes people thirsty.

I could identify with what the pastor said about praying for our leaders.  I do so regularly, on account of Trump being President and my fear of disaster that can result from him saying something inappropriate.  But I have particularly been praying for President Trump and the mayor in Puerto Rico to cooperate and to help Puerto Ricans get the food and water that they need.  Maybe both are responsible for their conflict with each other, on some level (and I will NOT get into a debate about that on this blog, or anywhere else), but my hope is that they can bury the hatchet and work together on what is important, rather than squabbling.

In terms of making people thirsty, I do not do that, or even try to do that.  I am all for trying to be a good person, but, speaking for myself, I find being an advertisement for Christianity to be phony.  It entails me acting as if I am better than I am, and as if I have solid answers that I do not have. 

That said, I found an interesting blog last week, and I included it in the Asperger’s section of my Blogger Blog.  This blog that I found is called “Asperger Ministry.”  One post was entitled “How Neurological Differences Affect Our Christian Witness.”  I liked this statement from the post (and I have slightly modified it):

“[In f]ocusing on being a good witness[,] the focus is on self and not Jesus. We need to approach others with the mindset of Philippians 2:3. Christians, being human as we are, can easily get effect and cause subtly twisted backwards. Jesus never asked His Heavenly Father to show Him how He could be a good witness. The reason He didn’t need to do this was because He was humble. Walking in the Spirit can’t be done unless we’re humble.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

Book Write-Up: 21 Ways to Forgive

Wes Daughenbaugh.  21 Ways to Forgive: Plus Nine Reasons We Must Forgive.  Redemption Press, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Wes Daughenbaugh is a teacher and an evangelist, whose ordination is with the Assemblies of God.  In this book, Daughenbaugh presents nine reasons that people must forgive, followed by 21 suggested ways to forgive.  There are illustrations throughout the book that have a Mad Magazine sort of style.

The assets of the book are many.  The illustrations help drive home Daughenbaugh’s points.  The book also has stories in which Daughenbaugh demonstrates that he knows of what he speaks from personal experience and struggle.  The insights make sense.  They encourage people to move on from bitterness, to do good to others so as to have other memories besides negative ones, and to hope that God will use the offender for God’s benevolent purposes, as God used the apostle Paul, who had persecuted Christians.

Overall, the book backs up its insights with Scripture.  There are biblical passages that discuss the health benefits of having a positive attitude rather than an attitude of envy and bitterness, and passages that encourage people to put away bitterness.  One of Daughenbaugh’s thoughts was uncomfortable, yet he did cite Scripture in support of it: he said that unforgiveness could land a person in hell, citing Matthew 18:21-35 for support.  In some cases, Daughenbaugh made somewhat of a leap, even though aspects of his point are plausible, from a Scriptural perspective.  I think of his recurring argument that our pain is treasured in heaven, and God may draw from that deposit to show mercy to the offender or the offender’s descendants, such that the offender can bless others.  I can think of no Scripture that explicitly presents that scenario, but the apostle Paul is an example of a wrongdoer whom God used to bless others.  (Daughenbaugh also acknowledges that God may send judgment.)  Sometimes, Daughenbaugh does not support his thoughts with Scripture but rather with anecdote: he says, for example, that we should not rebuke the devil because that could draw demons to us.

There were cases in which Daughenbaugh offered an interpretation of Scripture that was new to me.  For instance, according to Daughenbaugh, when Paul said in Philippians 3:10-11 that he wants to be like Christ in his death, he meant that he wanted to die “without angerness, bitterness, or self-pity.”

Daughenbaugh writes from a certain perspective, one that is charismatic.  He believes that God has spoken to his heart, offering him guidance and insights in certain situations.  He also seems to believe in temporal blessings and curses, on some level, which are related to forgiveness and unforgiveness.  (At least that was my impression, and I am open to correction.)  That made the book interesting to read, even if I am unsure about the extent to which I agree or disagree.  Granted, Jesus does appear to connect the faith that moves mountains with forgiveness in Mark 11:22-26.  There are passages in the New Testament epistles about bitterness being conducive to Satan’s activity, and about the devil somehow influencing or working in people.  But I wonder if there are other (or additional) ways to interpret those passages than what Daughenbaugh presents.

In terms of suggestions that I have, the book did omit an aspect of interpersonal forgiveness that occurs in Scripture, and that is confrontation of the offender (see Leviticus 19:17; Matthew 18:15).  Daughenbaugh did well to highlight Scriptures that exhort people not to start quarrels or to insult others (i.e., Proverbs 17:14; Ephesians 4:29), and, indeed, that raises an important question: How can we rebuke without telling a person off?  Daughenbaugh should have wrestled with this question.  To his credit, he did present ways to develop an attitude of love and compassion towards the person who offended.  But there are cases in which a person may be nice and helpful towards a person, while hating that person inside of his or her heart, making the outward love fake.  In such cases, confrontation may be helpful and healing, provided it is done right.

Another suggestion: Daughenbaugh should have offered some suggestions about how a hurt person can go out and love and help others.  That is not intuitive to everybody.  At the same time, Daughenbaugh did tell a good story about how this particular insight (i.e., spiritual warfare by loving others) worked in his own life.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash.  My review is honest!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Proving, by Beverly Lewis

Beverly Lewis.  The Proving.  Bethany House, 2017.  See here to buy the book.

Amanda (or Mandy) Dienner grew up in an Amish family in Lancaster County.  She had a twin sister, Arie Mae, and a brother, Jerome.  Mandy had a boyfriend, Josiah, and Mandy caught Josiah kissing Arie Mae.  Mandy is devastated and leaves Lancaster County to live as an Englisher (a non-Amish person).  After five years, Mandy learns that her mother has passed on and has bequeathed to Mandy the popular bed-and-breakfast.  Mandy wonders why it was not left to Arie Mae, who was more involved in running it.  Mandy returns to Lancaster County but has to become accustomed once more to Amish ways, while dealing with her estrangement from her family.

Catrina (or Trina) Sutton is a twenty-five year old woman who alienates people through her blunt speaking.  Trina leaves the nursing-home business to do home care, and she connects with an elderly woman named Gail.  Trina is also coping with the death of her fiancee in an automobile accident a year before.  Trina accepts a mystery vacation and ends up at Mandy’s bed-and-breakfast.  The two initially do not get along: Trina was not expecting to be in Amish country, and Mandy, like many, is turned off by Trina’s bluntness.

I have read Beverly Lewis’ more recent novels over the past two years, and I ordinarily give them three or four stars.  She is a sophisticated writer, but her stories do not always make a connection with me, and some plot-lines seem to be thrown into the stories just for the sake of throwing them into the stories.  This book made more of a connection with me, however, as it dealt with such themes as alienation, estrangement, and reconciliation.  The background information was endearing, too: the description of the breakfasts served at the bed-and-breakfast and how Mandy’s mother regarded the place as a ministry, and the description of the family, as Mandy’s father liked to read the Psalms after an especially hard day of work.  The scene in which Mandy honestly prays to God about her struggle to forgive her sister and tolerate Trina is also poignant.  Perhaps one could say that the book sometimes told more than showed, particularly when Josiah tells Mandy how much Arie Mae missed her.  But that scene was still moving and, in its own way, emotional, and the characters were believable.

The book would have been better had it explored in more detail Mandy’s estrangement from Amish culture and her adaptation to “English” ways, as that would have amplified Mandy’s tension over whether to sell the bed-and-breakfast or stay in Lancaster County.  Still, the book was more effective in describing Mandy’s apprehensions about being back in Lancaster County, and when they did and did not accord with reality.

Also, the book could have been better had Mandy helped Trina to heal.   The book was somewhat one-sided: Trina was somewhat of a therapist to Mandy, but I cannot recall Mandy offering Trina sound advice (though maybe she did so in the prayer scene, albeit accidentally).  Trina’s problems were solved through romance, and, while the romance was charming (it was an opposites-attract sort of romance), more attention should have been paid to Trina’s healing.

The book was enjoyable to read, though, on account of its heavy style and the themes that it addressed.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Church Write-Up: "Idols," the Right Fire Hydrant, and the Hebrew Bible Pointing to Christ

Last Sunday, I attended two church services.  The first service was at what I have called, correctly or incorrectly, the “Word of Faith” church; some weeks the label fits because it has prosperity teaching, and some weeks the label does not fit because it delivers the opposite of prosperity teaching.  The second service was at a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

I will discuss both services.  Then, I will offer some responses.

A.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church has been going through the Elijah story.  His message last Sunday was that we should be most passionate about God—-not celebrity (i.e., being celebrated by others), social and economic status, being countercultural and independent (this church is close to Portland), sports, or TV.  None of these things are wrong, he said, but we should be most passionate about God, rather than letting these other things consume us.  These are false gods when we make an idol of them, and they will not answer us in time of trouble; God, however, will answer those who are sold out to God.  But how do we identify the true God?  For one, the pastor said, the true God will put us in situations in which we desperately need God.  Second, in the same way that the fire from heaven in the Elijah story struck the altar and not the sinful Israelites, so did the true God punish Jesus for our sins.

Overall, it was a Tim Keller-esque sort of message.  In fact, the pastor showed us a brief clip of Tim Keller.  Tim Keller said in the clip that, if we make success the source of our identity, worth, and happiness, then we will work a lot.  In the process, we may neglect relationships with family and friends and, thus, opportunities to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.  We may even find ourselves compromising moral principles in our pursuit of success—-by lying, for example.

The pastor also referred to something that his son-in-law said that resonated with him.  The son-in-law likened Christians having the Holy Spirit to being connected to a fire hydrant.  The righteous sentiments are there in Christians because they are connected to Christ, but they do not always flow out of the Christians, providing the motivations for the Christians’ actions.  The pastor (at the “Word of Faith” church, not Tim Keller) mentioned the current controversy about the football players not standing for the national anthem.  The pastor acknowledged that this country has its share of abuses, but he speculated that the football player who refused to stand did so because he desired attention and celebrity.  Many who stand for the anthem, however, may themselves have an improper motivation, the pastor said: they honor America because it has been the source of their financial prosperity.  The pastor shared that, as one who tries to be connected to the right fire hydrant (Jesus), he has another motivation for standing for the national anthem: because God in Romans 13 commands Christians to respect and honor the governing authorities.

B.  At the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, the service was about the Scriptures being about Jesus.  The youth pastor was talking about how many characters in the Old Testament, who were righteous and talked with God, nevertheless sinned.  The point of the Old Testament was to show that we are sinners who need Jesus.  The pastor in the sermon made similar points.  He asked what the points of the Samson and Jephthah stories are: why were they included in the Bible?  He also talked about how the Pharisees saw the Bible primarily as a rule book: do these rules, and you will gain eternal life.  Jesus, by contrast, was trying to show them that the Scriptures pointed to him: they promised a Messiah, and they showed that people were sinners in need of a savior.

The worship service was especially powerful.  I was particularly moved by the song “Death Was Arrested,” by North Point InsideOut.  “Oh, your grace SO FREE, washes OVER ME…”  When the song was over, there was a brief time of solemn silence.  I haven’t had this powerful a worship experience since I was in college.

This was also the first time at this church that I went forward for communion.  This is a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, which means that communion is closed.  I do not know what I need to do to receive communion at this church, so, most weeks, I stayed in my pew when people went up for communion.  The bulletin said that those who choose not to partake of communion can go up, cross their arms over their chest, and receive a blessing, and that is what I did.  The pastor gave people bread, then he made the sign of the cross over my forehead, then he distributed bread to the next person.  No major awkwardness there!

C.  I used to be inspired by the Tim Keller sorts of sermons.  Nowadays, I am not as much, though, don’t get me wrong, I do prefer them to legalistic messages, or “You need to go and reach out to other people” messages.  Tim Keller-esque messages are like comforting “God loves you” sermons, in their own way.

Where I think they are useful is that they do highlight the potential dangers of being obsessed with certain things, like fame or financial success.  I had some difficulty with what Tim Keller said about an intense desire for success compromising friendships.  I do not have a good track record with friendships, so my instinct, of course, is to pursue success over being with other people, who may not even like me (and vice versa) down the road.  But I would not want to find myself lying or being a bad person on my attempted road to success.

I have problems rooting my sense of identity and worth in God.  The reason is that, in my opinion, Scripture seems to present God as conditionally loving.  The biblical passages that continually loom in my mind are the ones that say that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others.  I have difficulty loving a God who has that as a policy.

In terms of my passions, I would say that I have a balance in my life.  I have a devotional life.  I read the Bible and other religious literature, ancient and modern.  I pray.  But I also work on my dissertation.  I watch shows that I enjoy.  I do not want to agonize over whether I love God more or less than these things.  God is there in my life, and I enjoy those things.  Those things may even be a part of my devotion to God, yet that does not mean that I conform my scholarship to a Christian agenda, or try to interpret the shows that I watch through a rigid Christian grid.  The shows teach lessons about life, love, and the attempts of flawed human beings to make their way through a flawed world.  That overlaps with what Christianity talks about, and I acknowledge that, but I do not try to be heavy-handed when I look at shows in reference to Christianity.

On the Missouri Synod Lutheran service, seeing the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible as a precursor to Jesus Christ, of course, runs contrary to the historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Bible that I have learned.  The pastors’ statement that the Old Testament saints were sinners is tempting to believe, and I do not necessarily dismiss it, but I am interested in how historical-critics would address such a motif: why would the biblical writers portray people as making mistakes?  And how does that compare with other ancient literature?  A passage that comes to my mind is Genesis 20:13, in which Abraham tells Abimelech that his custom is to claim that his wife Sarah is his sister.  Many evangelicals maintain that Abraham claiming that Sarah was his sister was a good example of the flaws of Old Testament saints: Abraham was lying, after all, and lying is a sin.  What Genesis 20:13 seems to show, though, is that it never dawned on Abraham that such a practice was even wrong.  It was his custom to do this.  That makes me wonder: were the biblical authors writing the wife-sister narratives to show that Abraham was a sinner, in need of a Savior?  Or was there another reason?

I think, however, of the John MacArthur sermon that I heard a few Sundays ago, in which MacArthur said that God’s moral will may have been ambiguous prior to the Torah.  That may be a stretch: God punished the earth with the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone from heaven, due to their sins.  God had some moral law prior to the Torah.  But there may be something to MacArthur’s speculation: maybe Abraham did not fully know that lying was wrong.

I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Write-Up: Our Deepest Desires

Gregory E. Ganssle.  Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Gregory E. Ganssle teaches philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, which is at Biola University.  Ganssle articulates his goal in Our Deepest Desires on page 135: “I set out to make the case that the Christian story grounds and explains the things we care about most.”  Such things include life’s purpose, the human desire for relationships, morality, and beauty.

Ganssle’s philosophical training is evident throughout this book, as he engages the thoughts of Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Sartre, Plato, Nietzsche, and Hume.  Ganssle also discusses postmodernism.  His explanation of their thoughts is clear.  I especially appreciated his discussion of Sartre’s view that human existence precedes essence: that we were not created to be a certain way, but we get to define what our essence is.  Ganssle, of course, disagrees with that view, but the view has a certain attraction to it, as long as it is not taken too far.  Speaking of that, I wondered if Sartre, Nietzsche, and Hume believed in at least some moral boundaries.  You would expect most humans to do so.  Occasionally, Ganssle mentioned considerations that may indicate that some of these thinkers drew the line somewhere, but the broad thrust of his discussion communicated that they were not too keen on moral boundaries.  Sartre was against others telling people what their essence should be, Nietzsche regarded conventional (and Christian) morality as weakness and detrimental to human self-fulfillment, and Hume was skeptical of the existence of moral facts.

Ganssle sometimes employed philosophical argumentation, as when he argued against the view that evolution was sufficient to account for the human love for goodness.  One can argue that human morality evolved as a way to help humans survive, since cooperation is conducive to survival.  This makes some sense, but Ganssle does well to ask if a mere desire to survive accounts for the love for goodness and heroism that many people possess.

The book also had winsome reflections and anecdotes.  Ganssle shared his love for reading, saying that he reads Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, and Walker Percy every two or three years.  He also talked about how many people (himself included) do not enjoy being criticized: they want truth, but not the criticism that can lead them in that direction.  That resonates!

A criticism that I had through much of the book was that it did not appear to acknowledge suffering.  Ganssle was saying that there are more good things than bad things in life, but is that true for everyone?  Ganssle talked about the importance of relationships, but what about those who have difficulty forming and sustaining them?  The book perhaps would have been better had it engaged the problem of suffering more.  This is not to imply that Ganssle should radically change his thesis: people in the Third World, to use an example, do enjoy the goodness of life.  But they also experience intense suffering, and Ganssle’s discussion of the goodness of the world is incomplete because he does not really engage that.  Near the end of the book, there was more discussion about suffering and human mortality.  It was thoughtful, but even that discussion seemed to reflect a First World perspective (not that Ganssle can change his perspective, but there are other perspectives out there).

Ganssle talks about how God can spend an eternity helping people to develop character, so it is never too late to begin.  That is a profound concept.  I wonder, though, if it is consistent with prominent strands of conservative Christianity—-the types that assume that Christians become morally perfect once they enter heaven.

Also, I was curious about how hell would fit into Ganssle’s thesis.  One can argue that what Ganssle says about humanity’s deepest desires is not irreconcilable with the existence of hell.  Perhaps.  But why would God create so many human beings with desires that God can fulfill, if God’s purpose was to damn most of them to hell, because they left this earth before embracing a particular religion?

Does Christianity contribute to human flourishing?  Ganssle contends that it does, and, in certain respects, he is probably correct: Christianity gives people hope, a basis for morality, and motivations for philanthropy.  Obviously, some of the thinkers Ganssle discusses had a different view, seeing Christianity as detrimental towards human flourishing.  Maybe they went too far in their assessment.  But one can ask: Can homosexuals flourish when they cannot have a lifelong relationship with someone of their own gender, due to the will of the conservative Christian God?  Do certain conservative Christian ideas about sex—-specifically those that act as if people should not have sexual desire until they are married—-contribute to human flourishing?  The other extreme—-promiscuity—-contributes to its share of problems, but are not certain conservative Christian ideas themselves problematic in terms of helping people to arrive at happiness?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Book Write-Up: Institutional Intelligence

Gordon T. Smith.  Institutional Intelligence: How to Build an Effective Organization.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Institutional Intelligence is about how to run an institution.  Such institutions include non-profits and churches, but author Gordon T. Smith focuses largely on Christian academia, since that is where he is especially experienced.  Smith discusses the importance of having a clear mission for the institution, listening to one’s board, taking into consideration the interests of the stakeholders, and having a budget that is not only balanced but also accomplishes something.  He offers advice on the type of people to hire, how to raise money, things to consider when merging with another institution, and how to design the building such that it conveys a welcoming and spiritually-appropriate message.

At times, Smith comments on Christian spirituality, since his focus is on Christian institutions.  He talks about how God is the provider, yet institutions are still called to be good stewards.  He makes an interesting point about chapels and how they should not be comfortable and nostalgic but should, in some manner, acknowledge the brokenness of the world.  Smith states that working under authority and with people has spiritual value, in that it trains people for Christian discipleship.  And, because Smith is clear that institutions are generally not places of unconditional love, he gives readers tips about the proper attitude to have in responding to that: how they can avoid bitterness and respond appropriately to praise.

A lot of the book seemed to be common sense, but there are readers who may benefit from Smith’s articulation of the issues: they may wonder what exactly they should be considering, and Smith tells them.  Smith focuses a great deal on the type of attitude that leaders of institutions should have, but he occasionally provides practical advice about what they should actually do.  The book would have been better had it had more practical advice.  Moreover, the book was rather dry, and stories would have enhanced the book by making it more relatable and entertaining, while illustrating the principles that Smith was discussing.

The book would have also been better had it had a more pastoral tone.  The section on whom to hire makes sense, but it can make a person feel as if he or she needs to be perfect to work for an institution (not that Smith says that).  Of course, workers in general are expected to perform at a quality level, but Smith perhaps should have offered advice to potential workers about how they can prepare themselves for that.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Church Write-Up: The Law and Eternal Life

For church last Sunday, I watched some church services at home.  The reason I did not go out was that the air quality was poor, due (I presume) to the recent forest fires in Washington and Oregon.

A.  The first service that I watched was that of John MacArthur, Jr.  He spoke about the purpose of the law of God.  According to MacArthur, the Judaizers against whom Paul wrote in Galatians claimed that justification (i.e., being right with God) was by faith in Abraham’s time, but that it was by obedience to the law after God gave the law at Sinai.  Why else, they asked, would God have given the law?  MacArthur contended that God gave the law for a variety of reasons.  One reason was to separate Israel from the pagan nations, so that them Israelites would not socialize with them intimately.  That was designed to protect them from paganism.  Another reason was to show the Israelites that they fell short of obedience to God’s moral standards and thus needed a Savior.  The sacrifices atoned for their sin, demonstrating that they were sinners.  And the law contained God’s moral character, of which the Israelites fell short.  The law, for Paul, led to destruction and wrath, since the Israelites did not and could not observe it.  Through Christ, however, the life that was promised in the Abrahamic covenant comes to believing Israelites and Gentiles.  MacArthur talked about the errors of legalism and antinomianism.  For MacArthur, people are still obligated to obey the requirements of the law that reflect God’s moral character, and the New Testament commands.  God, after all, is holy, and MacArthur said that he doubted that he would want to worship a God who was not just and holy.  MacArthur also said that, when it comes to grace teachers (i.e., teachers who say that obedience to the moral law is unnecessary, since salvation is by grace through faith), he expects them to suffer a moral failure, and they often do.  Another point that MacArthur made was that it is acceptable for obedience to God’s moral law to flow from a sense of duty, even when there is not a deep spiritual feeling.  Paul, after all, said that he beats his body and makes it his slave (I Corinthians 9:27).

MacArthur observed that God’s covenant with Abraham did not talk much about sin or morality.  MacArthur speculated that, prior to the giving of the law, there was some unclarity about God’s moral will.  That was why there was polygamy then, MacArthur stated.  That reasoning, by itself, is problematic, for the law itself appeared to permit polygamy, as Deuteronomy 21:15 demonstrates (yet Deuteronomy 17:17 prohibits the king to multiply wives).  At the same time, the law does prohibit certain acts that the patriarchs practiced: Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:11-12), which Deuteronomy 27:22 forbids.  MacArthur may have a point, even if the example that he cited was not very good.  MacArthur may also have had in mind Paul’s enigmatic statement in Romans 5:13-14, even though MacArthur did not cite it or quote it in that particular sermon: Paul there says that sin was in the world prior to the law, yet it was not imputed, and nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses.  Before the law, were people let off the hook by God, since God did not yet make God’s will known through the law?  The thing is, God punished people for sin prior to the law: God punished people with a flood on account of their violence, and God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (UPDATE: Actually, my paraphrase of Romans 5:13-14 is laced with my interpretation.  Paul actually says that sin is not imputed where there is no law.  There is a scholarly argument that Paul's point there is that there was a moral law prior to the Mosaic law.)

There are other questions that I have about what MacArthur said about the law.  If God gave Israel rules to separate her from pagans in a sea of paganism, why did God not do the same for the Christians, who were also in a sea of paganism?  Was it because God wanted to give Israel a chance to develop in a righteous direction, setting the foundation for Christianity to come?  Once the foundation had been set, Christians could come on the scene and did not need the Torah’s rituals to keep them separate from paganism.  At the same time, there was some desire on Paul’s part to keep believers separate from non-believers, on some level, for Paul in II Corinthians 6:14 criticizes being unequally yoked; still, Paul in I Corinthians 7:12-14 exhorts believing wives to remain married to non-believing husbands.  I also question whether the Hebrew Bible itself regarded the Torah as a path to destruction, assuming that no one could keep it.  There were righteous people in the Hebrew Bible, such as Josiah, who was said not to turn to the right or the left (II Kings 22:2).  Yet, there were gracious provisions even in the Old Testament: God accepted Israel’s repentance and preserved Israel on account of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Could Paul have meant that the law, apart from these gracious provisions, would lead to destruction?  Or is that a stretch?

B.  The second sermon was preaching on Matthew 7:13-23.  In that biblical passage, Jesus exhorts people to travel the narrow way that leads to life, which few travel, rather than the broader, more popular way, which leads to destruction.  Jesus also warns his disciples of false prophets, and Jesus states that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” to Jesus will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do God’s will.  Doing miracles will not grant a person entrance into the Kingdom.  The topic of the sermon was avoiding “judgment shock,” which means expecting to inherit eternal life at the last judgment and instead finding that one is going to hell.  How does one avoid this?  The pastor said that being in church and simply believing facts about God is not enough, for  the demons believe in God yet are not saved (James 2:19).  Doing good works is not enough, either.  According to the pastor, one inherits eternal life by trusting Christ for salvation, as one’s Savior and Lord.  But were not the people in Matthew 7:21-22 believing in Christ, since they called him “Lord, Lord”?  The pastor said that they were saying that because they were at the last judgment and they would say anything to get out of going to hell.  Yet, the pastor also seemed to suggest that they thought that they were believers before then, during their lifetime.  But they did not have a deep relationship with Christ, which was why Christ said that he never knew them; Jesus also calls them workers of iniquity in v 23.  The pastor also said that he could spend time with a person and figure out what that person’s passions are, implying, perhaps, that true Christians have a passion for Christ.  This is not my favorite kind of message, but I like when the pastor shares aspects of his own testimony.  He said that, in his youth, he wanted to be a band leader, and he is glad that God delivered him from that, since where would he be had he gotten that wish?  He also expressed gratitude for the preachers of his youth who talked about hell and the need to be born again, and that he has more joy as a follower of Christ than he ever had following the world.

Matthew 7:21-22 has long disturbed me.  But I was thinking on Sunday afternoon: it is in the spirit of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who said that worship of God was not enough to please God, if people turned around and oppressed and harmed their neighbor.  Why worship God, if one does not want to stand for what God stands for?  Jesus appears to be making the same sort of point.  Was Jesus saying that salvation was by good works, then?  Not exactly: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shed his blood to ransom people and remit their sins (Matthew 20:28; 26:28), so it portrays the death of Jesus as essential for salvation; people, presumably, cannot simply clean themselves up by doing good works, for Jesus needed to die for them to be forgiven, even in the Gospel of Matthew.

I’ll stop here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Write-Up: Between One Faith and Another

Peter Kreeft.  Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.  IVP Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Peter Kreeft teaches philosophy at Boston College and is the author of over fifty books.  Because Kreeft has written about Christian apologetics and uses rigorous logic in his presentations that I have heard, I was expecting this book to be a critique of non-Christian religions and an argument that Christianity is superior.  I was wrong, and pleasantly surprised.

The book is a fictional dialogue among three people, all of whom participate in a religion class.  First, there is Thomas Keptic, a student.  Thomas is an exclusivist.  What that often means in this book is that Thomas believes that the truth claims of the religions are mutually irreconcilable: they cannot all be true.  Thomas is not a conservative Christian claiming that Christianity is true, however, but rather is a skeptic (get it, Thomas Ceptic) and an agnostic about religious truth claims.  He relies heavily on logic, particularly the law of non-contradiction.

Second, there is Bea Lever, another student.  She is an inclusivist, which means that she maintains that the different religions share commonalities in their practices and even, on some level, in their truth claims, and thus they are accessing a common reality.  She considers herself a Christian (her name is Bea Lever, as in “believer”), and Thomas often nitpicks her about how she can be a Christian while rejecting the exclusivism (in this case, the claim that one religion is true while others are false) that is promoted in the Bible.  Whereas Thomas relies on logic, Bea values intuition.

Third, there is Professor Fesser, who teaches the religion class.  He is somewhat of a mediator in the discussions between Thomas and Bea.  He points out the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and he often encourages both to consider the aspects of the religions themselves, rather than continually falling back on the exclusivism-inclusivism debate.  He is called a pluralist.

The book explores the question of the definition of religion and the religious sense, and it also discusses specific religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  The final chapter is about the question of whether contradictory religions can simultaneously be true.  This question recurs throughout the book, but it is the focus of the final chapter.

All three perspectives get their licks in.  That does not mean that the book is a long, acrimonious debate (though it occasionally does become heated), but rather that each side boldly defends its beliefs.  Conservative Christianity does not mercilessly mow down the other sides, in short.  Near the end, I thought that the book would go in that direction, when Professor Fesser encouraged Thomas to seriously consider Pascal’s Wager and the Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument in light of his (Thomas’) logical “either-or” perspective.  But Professor Fesser does not dwell on that, and the book ends on an inconclusive note, as if the journey, not the destination, is what is important.  In addition, while each side holds its beliefs, they also modify them, on some level: Thomas eventually sees some value in inclusivism, and Bea admits that she is not an absolute inclusivist but draws the line somewhere.

The book does not just dwell on the exclusivism-inclusivism debate, but it also delves into the peculiarities of different religions, and the diversity within them.  For example, an intriguing part of the book is when Professor Fesser explains that the co-existence of contradictions, in which prominent aspects of Hinduism believe, makes sense in light of Hindu principles about theology and cosmology.

Although the debate itself does not go in an explicitly conservative Christian direction, Kreeft, in a thoughtful introduction, explains how the three approaches fit into his own understanding of Christianity.  Kreeft is an exclusivist in that he believes that Christ is God incarnate, yet he also holds that the Logos/light enlightens everyone who comes into the world (a la John 1:9, though the meaning of that verse has been debated), meaning that non-Christian religions have at least some access to truth.  Kreeft also shares where he identifies with the three schools of thought that he addresses, and where he has reservations.

The book is worth reading, particularly on account of its rounded exploration of issues.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

R.I.P., Figabuddy

His name was Figaro.  I called him my “Figabuddy.”  He passed on this morning.  He was a sweet, lovey kitty.  We miss him.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton.  The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Biblical scholar John Walton is known for his books, The Lost World of Genesis One and the Lost World of Adam and Eve, in which he offers fresh interpretations of the Hebrew Bible in light of its ancient Near Eastern context.  With his son, J. Harvey Walton, a graduate student in biblical and theological studies, Walton attempts to do the same thing in this next book of the series, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest.  The Waltons tackle the disturbing issue of the Israelite Conquest, in which God in the Hebrew Bible commanded the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites and to take their land.  The Canaanites were put under the ban, or, in Hebrew, the cherem.

The Waltons are critical of both criticisms of the Israelite Conquest and also apologetic attempts to defend it.  Against the criticisms, the Waltons contend that there was a different mindset in the ancient Near East than there is today: the Canaanites, for example, would not have considered the Israelites to be unfair in taking their land, but rather they would have concluded that the Israelite God was stronger than their gods, or that they had somehow displeased their own gods.

Against the apologetic defenses, the Waltons contend that, in the Hebrew Bible, the Canaanites are not killed because God is punishing them for sins that they committed.  The Waltons offer alternative interpretations of biblical passages that have been held to promote the viewpoint that the Israelite Conquest was divine punishment of the Canaanites, including Genesis 15:16, Leviticus 18:27-30, and Deuteronomy 9:4-5.

According to the Waltons, the purpose of cherem was for the land of Canaan to be given to God, for God’s use.  The Waltons seem to acknowledge that, in the Hebrew Bible, this entailed the killing of the Canaanites in battle.  At the same time, they maintain that cherem does not necessarily entail killing.  It could include the Canaanites leaving their cities, Canaanites giving up their identity and becoming Israelites (as Rahab did), Canaanites being consecrated to the service of God (like the Gibeonites), and Canaanite identity being eradicated through the killing of the Canaanite kings, the leaders of the nation.

The book had interesting details.  For example, the Waltons address the biblical portrayal of the Canaanites in light of ancient Near Eastern descriptions of certain groups (like the Umman-manda) as barbarians, as people who are chaotic or even monstrous.  For the Waltons, the biblical portrayals of the Canaanites were not intended to be taken literally, but rather to remind the Israelites that their God was a God of order, not chaos.  In addition, while I have heard that the prophetic “Oracles against the Nations” were intended for an Israelite audience and not the actual nations themselves, the Waltons cogently explained how the Oracles functioned for the Israelites.

The book had somewhat of an “All dressed up and no place to go” feel, in that the Waltons failed to articulate what exactly God’s larger purposes were.  They reject the idea that God in the Hebrew Bible was seeking to convert the nations to the religion of Israel.  They seem to suggest that the goal of the Conquest was so that God could have the land so that God could manifest God’s glory to the nations, but what was the telos of that?  In a few passages, they appear to say that we do not really know: that God’s aims in the Hebrew Bible are obscure to us because we are from a different culture from theirs.  They seem to suggest something similar about the New Testament: that it leaves questions unanswered about God’s ultimate purposes.

The Waltons also address how the concept of cherem relates to the New Testament.  Cherem in the Hebrew Bible was about the surrender of a previous identity so that God could have possession.  That is the case in the New Testament, with believers.  Moreover, in the same way that the Waltons dispute that Leviticus 18 was a literal description of how the Canaanites behaved, they contend that New Testament descriptions of the flesh, likewise, are not intended to be interpreted as fully accurate.  This is not entirely convincing, but it is intriguing, as some (myself included) have wrestled with New Testament depictions of humans apart from Christ as depraved.  Another interesting detail of their discussion about the New Testament was that they held that church discipline in I Corinthians was not so much about policing sin in the church, as maintaining a good reputation with outsiders.  Yet, the Waltons balanced this out by saying that church discipline in the New Testament is about the church affirming its identity, against threats to her identity that compromise her usefulness to God.

The prose of the book was relatively simple, and the Waltons utilized analogies to make their arguments clearer.  The book was still difficult, and one reading alone may not suffice, for some readers.  One reason is that the Waltons were advancing theses that were counter-intuitive, so special attention needed to be paid to their arguments to see where they were going, and how they were getting there.  Reading the Waltons’ book brings to mind the words of Yoda: “You must UNLEARN what you have learned!”  Second, the Waltons were exploring different dimensions of topics, including the cherem.  They were not simply suggesting that the Israelite Conquest (among other things) echoes the ancient Near East, but they were pointing out areas in which concepts in the Hebrew Bible differed from the ancient Near East.  Third, they seemed to contradict themselves, at times.  They argued that Leviticus 18-20 did not contain laws that the Israelites were expected to obey, and, indeed, scholars have questioned whether ancient law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, were intended to be applied literally.  For the Waltons, the law codes contained principles of justice, not actual laws.  At the same time, they seem to acknowledge that there are laws of the Old Testament, and they liken the laws of the Torah to rules of a game that Israelites were expected to honor.  There was also some unclarity about the biblical passages that depict Canaanites as existing after the Conquest: does their preservation show that the Conquest did not entail utter annihilation, or did God change God’s mind about their annihilation, allowing the Canaanites to survive to be a test to the Israelites (a la Judges 3:1).

In terms of its approach to the Bible, the book is rather conservative.  It seems to accept the historicity of the Israelite Conquest.  It also uses some of its insights to present the Bible as coherent: the Waltons state, for instance, that the Pentateuch contains laws that differ from each other, but that this does not matter because the “laws” are not actually laws but are intended to convey the importance of certain principles.  Many conservatives probably would not defend the coherency of the Bible in this way, but the Waltons do so.  A good question would be, however, why there are contradictory laws in the first place, if a single God inspired the Bible.

The book is thought-provoking and informative, especially about conceptions within the ancient Near Eastern world.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Church Write-Up: Grace, God and Non-Believers, Divine Guidance, Gnosticism

I visited two churches last Sunday.  One was an African-American Baptist church.  The other was the evangelical church that I call the “Pen Church,” since I get a free pen there when I attend.  The sermons at both churches overlapped in the topics that they addressed: guidance by the Holy Spirit, water baptism as an act of obedience to God, the importance of immediate rather than delayed obedience, and the list goes on.  This was interesting, since, unlike the two churches that I attended a few Sundays ago, these churches were not using the same Scripture readings.  They just overlapped in their topics!

Here are some things that stood out to me, along with my responses.  I will call the preacher at the African-American Baptist church “Preacher A,” and the preacher at the Pen Church “Preacher B.”

A.  Preacher B was saying that God’s grace is free upon request, but that spiritual disciplines take effort.  Preacher A said that delayed obedience is not real obedience, and he quoted someone who said that disobedience to God undermines or rejects God’s grace.

I do not know what the person whom Preacher A quoted meant by that, or what Preacher A interpreted it to mean.  On the one hand, this is a Baptist church: it believes in once-saved-always-saved rather than thinking that Christians can lose their salvation through disobedience.  It tends to think that God disciplines disobedient believers rather than kicking them out of God’s family.  On the other hand, the pastor last week was preaching about the Book of Jude, saying that Jude was critical of those who appealed to God’s grace to excuse their willful sinfulness.  The pastor also quoted Hebrews 12:14, which exhorts, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (KJV).  According to the pastor, we will not get into heaven without living a holy life.

How does disobedience undermine or reject God’s grace?  I can guess.  It could mean that, when we sin, we stomp on the second chance that God has given us.  God has presumably given us a second chance so that we can become transformed into righteous people, and we obviate that goal when we are persistently disobedient.  It may mean that, by sinning, we reject God’s grace, if we define God’s grace as God’s assistance that enables us to live a righteous life.  The Holy Spirit graciously leads us one direction, and we choose to go in another.

I liked something that Preacher B said: that an essential part of owning our spiritual lives is recognizing our need for God’s grace.  I think that, here, he was defining grace as God’s unmerited favor.  We need God’s grace to be accepted by God, for we are imperfect.  This does not merely describe what was the case before I became a Christian, for it describes me now.

B.  Preacher A was conducting an altar call at the end of his sermon, but nobody came forward to accept Christ.  Preacher A was saying that we cannot be led by God, when we are not reconciled with God in Christ, and when we lack God’s Holy Spirit within us.  We get those benefits when we accept Christ into our life.  Preacher A also said that sinners without Christ are not sick people who need to be healed; they are spiritually dead people who need to be spiritually resurrected (see Ephesians 2:1-7; Colossians 2:13).

Preacher B, similarly, was saying that our sins created a vast gulf between us and God, and that was why Christ became a human and suffered.  His implication, presumably, is that we need to believe in Christ to close that gulf between us and God.

Does God have nothing to do with non-believers, in terms of guiding them and spiritually transforming them?  I have wrestled with that question on this blog before: see “Does God Hear Non-Believers?” and “Does God Only Hear Christians’ Prayers?”  I agree with some of what I wrote, and I disagree with other parts.  In terms of where I disagree, I have more optimism about God’s presence in my life now than I did back then, as I depend on God continually to help me through my negative mindset.

I struggle somewhat with the idea that non-believers are spiritually dead.  I know non-believers who seem to have a genuine love for social justice: who care about people who are in need or who are oppressed or exploited.  They do good things for other people.  Are they perfect?  No, but are they spiritually DEAD?  Of course, there are Christians who have their answers to my question.  They would say that non-believers have God’s common grace, which prevents them from utterly degenerating into their depravity.  Or they say that “Total Depravity” does not mean that non-believers are as bad as they can be, but rather than they are flawed: that even the good that they feel and do is corrupted.  Some Christians of the non-Calvinist variety interpret “dead in trespasses and sin” in Ephesians 2:1-7 and Colossians 2:13, not in reference to human nature and whether it is able to will and to do good (on some level), but in reference to God’s death penalty for sin: we sin, and we deserve death as a result.  Ephesians 2:1-7, however, seems to refer to both: people apart from Christ did bad things on account of their passions, and they deserve God’s wrath (but Christ has delivered believers from that by lifting them up to spiritual places).

I am writing myself into a pit here, so I will move on to the next item.

C.  Preacher A was likening God’s guidance to driving a certain kind of car, which automatically moves people to where they are supposed to be when they are veering off course.  (Don’t ask me for more information on this, as I know little about cars!)  He seemed to be advocating being fully led by the Holy Spirit.  He may have acknowledged a role for the human will, though, for he stressed obedience to God.

Preacher B was saying that humans need to do their part, and God will usually not do for them what they can already do by themselves.  God answers prayers, but we need to pray.  God stores God’s word in our hearts, but we need to read it.

Preacher B made another point.  He said that God chooses to speak to us in a whisper (I Kings 19:12), rather than booming at us from a distance, because we need to be closer to God to hear God’s whisper.  God desires intimacy with us.  The pastor then told us about the times that God whispered to him since he became a Christian as a child.

D.  Preacher A was primarily focusing on the Book of Colossians, and he was talking about Gnosticism, against which the author of Colossians was supposedly inveighing.  He was probably relying on a reference book in describing Gnosticism.  He said that Gnosticism repudiated Genesis 1 in claiming that God did not create the cosmos, but that is not entirely accurate: Valentinian Gnosticism believed in Genesis 1 but thought that the creator was a sinister (or just, depending on the writing) sub-deity.  There is debate within scholarship about the category of Gnosticism, but I do not want to get entangled in that in this post.

I was wondering what exactly was at stake, when it came to ancient Christians’ opposition to Gnosticism.  The pluralist part of me wondered what was so wrong with accepting Gnosticism, as long as a person lived a good, moral life.  Christians have said that Gnosticism is wrong because physicality matters: God loves matter and will renew the physical cosmos.  Gnosticism, by contrast, tended to devalue matter as evil, stressing that humans were spirits trapped inside of bodies; they hoped for liberation from the material.  Some took this in ascetic directions, and some in libertine directions.  Is asceticism necessarily wrong, though?  Maybe it is, if it becomes a legalistic requirement.  Gnosticism also may not be good for the environment, since it devalues matter.  But one would think that Christians rejected Gnosticism due to larger issues that were at stake.

Preacher B was talking about the importance of Christ’s suffering.  Christ did not simply become a human to hang out, he said, but Christ came to suffer for our sins.  Preacher A had said that Gnosticism rejected Jesus’ incarnation and the sufficiency of Christ.  Perhaps that is why Christians rejected Gnosticism: they believed that it contradicted the truth, as they understood it.  They thought that Christ, in Christ’s incarnation, suffering, and resurrection, brought life, and Gnosticism, in rejecting that, was rejecting life.  For ancient Christians who came to be considered “orthodox,” the Gnostics were on the wrong road.

But I wonder: did they also believe that there were practical negative effects of Gnosticism, as a belief system?  There are Christians who say that atheism has practical negative effects in that it eliminates a firm foundation for morality.  There are atheists who say that theism has bad practical effects in that it keeps people in a state of childishness.  These critiques have nothing to do with the truth of the belief systems but rather look at their supposed practical effects.  Did Christians make practical criticisms of Gnosticism?

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