Sunday, October 18, 2020

True Unbelief, Romans 11, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, the Real Anita Hill

 Some items from church and books that I recently read.

A. Last Wednesday, I attended, via Zoom, my church’s group on Max Lucado’s Anxious for Nothing. Two ideas stood out to me:

—-One of the people there shared about her father. Her father, according to her characterization, has long been a selfish man who desires glory, recognition, and adulation for himself. He is sick, and she is unsure if he is a Christian. He says that he is, but his life gives little indication of love for God. Her mother was the one who took her family to church, whereas her father did not go. The pastor encouraged her with Isaiah 42:3, which affirms that the Suffering Servant shall not put out a smoldering wick. If there is any faith there, God is eager to fan that flame.

—-Someone in the group shared that the atheists and agnostics he knows hate God because life did not turn out as they wanted. The pastor responded with: “If there is no God, whom do you hate?” The pastor talked about the movie Signs, in which Mel Gibson plays an ex-priest who walked away from God due to the death of his wife. The pastor used to ask his confirmation class: “When did the priest get his faith back?” The students usually replied, “When he became a priest again,” or “When he acknowledged that his trials had a purpose.” But the pastor thought the priest regained his faith when he told God, “I hate you,” because, at least there, he was acknowledging that God exists. I have wondered what I believe in times when I hate God. When I hate God for, say, requiring me to love and forgive others and withholding his love and grace from me when I do not, do I really believe that God is like that? I fear that he might be, since a biblical case can be made for that. But there is another part of me, perhaps deeper down, that believes that God is merciful to me, anyway, and that God has never written me off.

B. Bible study this morning covered Romans 11. Ever since I gave a presentation on Romans 9-11 as a senior in college, which was twenty-one years ago, my interpretation of Romans 11 has gone like this. God is faithful to Israel in that God has preserved a remnant of Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah. But God has hardened most Jews’ heart, such that they do not believe, and the purpose is so that the Gospel will then go to the Gentiles, who do believe. Paul hopes that the conversion of the Gentiles will stir the unbelieving Jews to jealousy and influence them to believe, but, ultimately, he leaves their belief to God. God, at or soon before the second coming of Christ, will soften the unbelieving Jews’ heart such that they believe. All Israel will be saved, and that will be like a national resurrection from the dead.

The pastor, a Lutheran, offered a different interpretation, one that focuses on free will, the law/Gospel dichotomy, and God’s mercy to sinners. Romans 11 begins with Elijah’s disappointment with God. Elijah was focusing on his own good works, as if they made him valuable to God, neglecting that it is God’s mercy and love that makes Elijah valuable in God’s sight. Meanwhile, whatever Elijah’s success or lack thereof, God reserved for himself a remnant that rejected the worship of Baal. God is using most Jews’ rejection of the Gospel for good: to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. But the Gentile Christians must take heed not to think that they are better than others due to any worth on their part. They are in the olive tree, Israel, through God’s mercy. Whereas conventional horticulture entails grafting quality fruit onto a tree, making the tree healthier, God has unconventionally grafted wild branches, the Gentiles, into the olive tree. The pastor disputed the premillennial view that there will be a mass conversion of the Jews in the last days; rather, according to the pastor, Paul invites the non-believing Jews now to believe. If they do so, they will be defined in terms of resurrection rather than unbelief and reliance on their works. Paul then seeks to resolve the conflict between Gentile Christians in Rome and Jewish Christians who returned after absence from Rome by focusing on God’s mercy: we all have been consigned to sin, so we all need a savior.

There are some tensions in what the pastor was saying. For one, the pastor said that God hardened the Jews by sealing the unbelief that they willfully chose. The pastor rejects double predestination, that God somehow caused the Jews’ unbelief. Rather, they chose to reject the Gospel, and God sealed that unbelief. Yet, the pastor also seemed to deny that the unbelieving Jews were totally sealed in their unbelief, for Paul still had hope that they could embrace the Gospel. Second, the pastor talked about Isaiah 40, which Paul quotes in Romans 11. Isaiah 40 closes by affirming that God lifts up the weak and the weary. The pastor referred to Luther’s statement that we cannot believe due to our own weakness and weariness, but God prefers to show mercy. That seemed to contradict the pastor’s emphasis on human free will in his interpretation of Romans 11: that people can simply choose to accept or reject God.

Another point that the pastor made was that Paul’s image of the olive tree is a midrash on Jeremiah 11:16-19. There, God plants an olive tree, Israel, but its branches are burned off due to God’s judgment of it.

C. Gavin Ortlund. Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy. IVP Academic, 2020. See here to purchase the book.

Gavin Ortlund has a Ph.D. from Fuller and serves as pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in California. This book, as the title indicates, is about how Augustine can illuminate current religious controversies about human origins.

Ortlund convincingly demonstrates that Augustine was unlike today’s Young Earth Creationists (YECs): one who believes that God created the cosmos six thousand years ago, that animal suffering and death came as a result of the Fall, and that God created humans and animals by fiat rather than by using evolution. Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1-3 was not entirely literal. Augustine was humble when the science of his day appeared to contradict Genesis 1-3. Augustine was open to the idea that God could create through development rather than fiat: Adam, for example, may have been created as an infant who grew rather than being created as an adult. And, far from seeing animal suffering and death as a result of the Fall, Augustine regarded them as a part of God’s original creation and as part of a beautiful tapestry. These insights are at least consistent with what modern science says about origins and cosmic history. Ortlund also highlights how Augustine regards creation as ongoing, as opposed to believing that everything was perfect six thousand years ago until the Fall. Creation continues to long for God, a la Romans 8, and God will renew it and bring it to Godself.

At the same time, Ortlund’s Augustine is far from being a theistic evolutionist of the Biologos variety. Augustine’s struggle with Genesis 1 was not about trying to harmonize Genesis 1 with an ancient earth; rather, Augustine believed that God created everything simultaneously and sought to explain Genesis 1’s picture of God creating sequentially. In some areas, Augustine rejects the science of his day in favor of faith. Augustine also thought that Genesis 2-3 was historical, on some level, even though he also held that parts of it are figurative and allegorical of a spiritual reality. Near the end of the book, Ortlund goes into later (nineteenth-twentieth century) Christian attempts to harmonize a historical Adam and Eve with evolution.

The book could have been stronger in a couple of areas. First, it could have gone into more depth about how the science of Augustine’s day challenged a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. The book opens with a compelling passage about how Augustine, like many evangelicals today, had been convinced “that the Genesis account is inconsistent with the most sophisticated intellectual trends of the day.” Seeing the parallel is rather difficult, though. The challenges today appear immense. Science says that the earth is old, that humanity did not descend from one human couple thousands of years ago, and that animal death has been with us for millions of years, forming an integral part of earth’s ecology; a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 seems to say something different, and, what is more, what that literal interpretation says appears to form a crucial part of Christian doctrine. Augustine, on the other hand, simply rejects the idea that the cosmos is eternal and Manichean dualism. Maybe I see those things as obviously wrong and as easier to reject than today’s scientific challenges, so I fail to appreciate the gravity of Augustine’s struggle. Still, the book could have been clearer about where Augustine’s struggle was.

Second, there is the question of whether Augustine is authoritative for Christians. A lot of Christians will simply say: “Why should I accept Augustine? I just go with the Bible!” Ortlund did well to refute the YECs who treat Augustine as an exemplar of their position, and who act as if a non-literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is solely a recent phenomenon. Ortlund also did well to highlight theological possibilities: that perhaps God did create the earth as imperfect and as growing, rather than as totally perfect at the outset. But Augustine’s authority was not sufficiently defended.

Still, the book effectively discusses how Christians might want to harmonize Genesis 1-3 with modern science.

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

D. David Brock. The Real Anita Hill: The Untold Story. The Free Press, 1993.

In this book, David Brock argues that Anita Hill was lying whereas Clarence Thomas was telling the truth. Brock, of course, later repudiated this book. But I was curious about this book’s case.

Often, I read that Brock characterized Hill as a bit nutty and a bit slutty. That may have been in his American Spectator article, which formed the basis for this book, but such a claim is absent from this book itself. Hill is actually said to be inexperienced in dating.

Another claim was that Brock relied on anonymous sources. Indeed, some of his sources are anonymous. But many are not. What is more, Brock alludes frequently to the official testimonies of Hill, Thomas, and other witnesses. Brock shows where Hill’s testimony is contradictory, both with what she said and also with what others testified. Brock also quotes female employees of Thomas, who testified that he was morally strict in his oversight of the EEOC. These employees were not seeking to ingratiate themselves with Thomas or to avoid professional backlash from him, for some of them had been fired by Thomas.

Another claim was that Brock ignored other female victims of Thomas and Thomas’s penchant for pornography. But Brock actually talks about another woman’s allegation against Thomas, saying that it could have been rooted in her animosity at Thomas having fired her. Brock also says that, when Hill came forward, it would be logical to anticipate copycats coming forward with stories copying what Hill said. Regarding pornography, Brock acknowledges that Thomas saw pornographic movies at Yale Law School, but so did a lot of students. And the things that Hill said Thomas talked with her about in the 1980’s were absent from pornographic movies at the time. Brock also says that, even if Thomas still viewed pornography, that does not mean that he harassed Anita Hill.

Yet another claim was that the book was a right-wing hit-job. Brock, at least in the book, seeks to avoid this charge. He presents himself as neutral before he began his investigation. He criticizes Republican scandals, like Iran-Contra, not only Democratic misdeeds. He portrays Thomas, not as a typical right-winger, but as an independent thinker with nuanced beliefs. Maybe his book is one-sided, since a more balanced book would probably interview Democratic Senators and more people who liked Hill. But it is still well-researched.

Who is the “Real Anita Hill,” according to Brock in this book? Hill was a successful student in both high school and also law school. But she professionally struggled after she graduated. She left a law firm and claimed her departure was about sexual harassment. She then went to work for Thomas at the Department of Education, and she enjoyed her professional relationship with him, as they debated and socialized. When Thomas moved to the EEOC, she followed him there, even though she had job security at the Department of Education. She became disenchanted with her EEOC job, however. She lacked the access to Thomas that she had at Education, which disappointed her professionally and perhaps even romantically. She was in over her head when it came to the work at EEOC. She was becoming disappointed with Thomas’s increasing move to the right, thinking that Thomas was betraying his roots. What is more, she may actually have been sexually harassed, albeit by another supervisor at EEOC, who had a reputation. She left EEOC and taught at Oral Roberts University, but she did not fit in there and moved to the University of Oklahoma, where she fit in better due to the faculty being more liberal. She was not a very good professor but was disorganized and blamed her problems on racism. She had an obsession with sexual harassment, racism, and even, on some level, pornography: she talked to people about “Long Dong Silver” and placed what appeared to be pubic hairs on students’ exams. Hill may have blamed Thomas for the sexual harassment by the other EEOC supervisor, since Thomas was the ultimate authority at EEOC, and, as a liberal, she also may have wanted to stop his appointment to the Supreme Court, but she sought to make her charges against Thomas anonymously. When the liberal “shadow Senate”—-the lobbies and Senators who opposed Thomas—-got her to go public, she built up her initially meager story to save face.

As it reads, and based on what I currently know, the book is judicious. Were I to read Strange Justice, which is anti-Thomas, that might alter my impression.

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