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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

in defense of arminianism

A blogger who uses the name "The Preacher" has an interesting post entitled Making Jehovah into a Lovesick Girl. He asks, "Can I submit to you, that this is exactly what we do when we preach an Arminian gospel?"

The answer is no. Perhaps that's how it appears to Calvinists. And, truth be told, I think I actually heard the gospel presented like this once or twice by well-intentioned but misguided youth leaders back in my teenage years. But to reduce God to a lovestruck girl hoping to be invited to prom, waiting for us to make the first move -- that's a distortion of genuine Arminian theology.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Arminianism is often defined in opposition to Calvinism. Calvinism, as I understand it, teaches that we have no say in our salvation, that it's completely God's decision. Perhaps a Calvinist might assume, by contrast, that Arminians believe that salvation is entirely in our own hands.

But defining any idea solely in relation to a competing idea is the easiest way to distort it. In fact, Arminianism shares with Calvinism the foundation that human nature is sinful, and that, left to our own devices, we could never achieve righteousness.

Arminians departs with Calvinists on the extent of God's grace. Calvinists believe that God's grace is limited to a predetermined group of people, the elect. Anyone not in this group is doomed.

Arminians believe, along with 1 Timothy 2:4, that God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." We believe, along with Titus 2:11, that "the grace of God has appeared to all." We believe, along with Romans 2:4, that "God's kindness is meant to lead [us] to repentance." We believe, along with Philippians 2:12-13 that as we "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling," we recognize that "it is God at work within [us]."

Arminianism is not the opposite of Calvinism. Arminians don't believe we are the authors of our own salvation. We don't believe God's love is merely a product of pubescent hormones running wild. We don't believe God is so helpless as to pine over unrequited love.

Instead, we see God's grace at work in the world. This grace that has appeared to all, not just to a select few, is known as prevenient grace. That's not the grace that saves us, but it does enable us to respond to God. So even though we don't have it within our nature to choose God, we have something within us that is not part of our own nature.

Our very ability to choose God is itself a gift from God.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

trying to do something constructive

My recent post Law of the Marketplace has produced a lengthy discussion between OneOfMany and Steve Hayes. I think there is common ground to be found here.

In his most recent comment, OneOfMany said, among other things:

As regards hard living and doing without, that is a subject that I’ve tried to do something about by visiting with and spending time with and working with and helping poor people, hard living people, blue collar not well educated working class independent proud teeter tottering on the edge of economic crisis don’t want no handouts people who will not listen to you, to whom you have no right to speak until you have earned the right to speak to them by actually caring and trying to do something constructive to help them.

This matches my own experience. Most poor people want to help themselves. They need a helping hand, not a handout. Many charities are not designed to really help. Whether by design or by accident, they send a clear message that the giver and the receiver are not equals.

About ten years ago I volunteered a few times at food distribution center. I won't name the organization. Once a month, families were allowed to come and receive a shopping cart loaded with dry goods. As I recall, each month there were two lists, one for families with an infant or a toddler, and one for families with older kids. My job was to fill the cart from the list, push the cart out their car, unload the food, and bring the cart back. The recipients were not allowed to do anything for themselves. Wouldn't want them making substitutions in their rations, or running off with a cart.

Every person arrived with a frown or a scowl on their face. They didn't appreciate it -- and why should they? It's humiliating enough to have to rely on handouts in the first place; it's much worse not to be allowed to do what you can.

I remember a boy who must have been about 10-11 years old, who came once with his mother. As I finished filling the cart, he said, "I want to push the cart out." This was a clear violation of the rules. I rolled the cart ouside the door, then, once we were out of view of other volunteers, I let him push the cart to his car.

In all the times I volunteered there, I think that boy was the only person I saw who showed even a glimmer of hope. The setup simply was not conducive to really helping people. I don't fully blame the charity. With the number of people they served, and the limited supplies available, they needed to keep a tight control on their inventory. If people were allowed to choose their own food, some items would be gone before some people could get there.

Even in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world, the need is great. One out of every seven people in the United States lives in poverty. It's good that churches and other groups provide assistance. But the problems are too severe to solve through voluntary programs. The problems are systemic, so any solution must begin with changing the system.

I don't know what the answer is. As OneOfMany points out, no other economic system has proven effective at providing justice and opportunity. Unfortunately, neither does market economics. If we want any semblance of a fair and just society, we need to find a new model.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

it's a major award

Henry Neufeld of Threads from Henry's Web has randomly tagged me with Thinking Blogger award.

The hardest part for me is narrowing it down to just five blogs. Fortunately, a number of my favorites have already been nominated by others: Monk-in-Training's Monastic Mumblings (also tagged by Henry), Questing Parson, and [rhymes with kerouac]'s Today at the Mission (both tagged by Lorna at see-through faith). I'm glad to see these blogs get the recognition they deserve.

Here are my five picks, in no particular order:

  • PamBG describes her theology as "liberal in process and orthodox in doctrine". She sees details that I would have overlooked, and is able to explain why they matter.

  • I suspect John the Methodist at Locusts and Honey has already been tagged, but I didn't see mention of it in his archives. I don't always agree with his assumptions, but he often forces me to re-examine my own assumptions.

  • I would probably tag truevyne even if she didn't have a blog. Her comments, both here and on other blogs I read, are thought-provoking enough to earn her this award. And her writing style breathes life into even the most routine details of everyday life.

  • Wes Magruder is a missionary in Cameroon. He provides a fascinating window on life in a vastly different part of the world. His blog, Preach Peace, is a welcome antidote to the self-centeredness and materialism of much of Western Christianity.

  • eddie{F} at Edge of Faith is, quite simply, one of the most open and honest bloggers I've found. He has wrestled with questions and issues many of us will never face, and he's not afraid to share his struggles. As an ex-Christian, he challenges my faith by asking questions I may not be able to answer.

I'll say, along with Art Ruch: "If any of you have already been nominated, let me know - I’ve already thought of 5 more."

I've not included any of the fine blogs I have discovered since the beginning of this year, mostly through the growing Moderate Christians Blogroll and the Christian Peace Bloggers. I've also not included any of several high-quality blogs that are updated infrequently.

The rules are:
Should you choose to participate, please make sure you pass this list of rules to the blogs you are tagging. I thought it would be appropriate to include them with the meme.

The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn’t fit your blog).

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

he is risen

After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they said to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back. So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe -- and they were alarmed.

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here -- he has been raised! Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: "He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.' "

So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

- Mark 16:1-8

It is fashionable among theologians and "historical Jesus" scholars to assert that the empty tomb is a late addition to the resurrection stories. The followers of Jesus experienced something powerful, something life-changing, and had trouble finding the words to express it.

Classical historians who look at the gospels -- even if they don't believe in Christ -- tend to reach the opposite conclusion.

But in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike -- and even perhaps of the disciples themselves -- are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.

- Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew

Mark, as we have seen, had heard that the three women saw it together. But according to John, the first to see it was Mary Magdalene all by herself. Either of these reports is likely enough to represent the authentic occurrence, since the early Church would never have concocted, on its own account, the statement that this most solemn and fateful of all discoveries was made by women, including a woman with an immoral record at that. Perhaps John's version is the original one, and the other women were added to the story later to make it less shocking.

Who had taken the body? There is no way of knowing. Mary Magdalene thought at first that the cemetery gardener had removed it -- whereas the Jews, not unplausibly, maintained that it had been taken by Jesus' own disciples. At all events it was gone. And because it was gone, and no one knew where it was, this made it easier for people to believe, three days later (a period equated with scriptural predictions,) that they were seeing Jesus alive again and returned to the earth, risen from the dead. The Resurrection is the subject of some of the greatest pictures ever painted, but there is no actual description of it, and nobody claimed to have seen it happen. Yet those who believed that Jesus had appeared to them on the earth after his death have their alleged experiences recorded in a number of passages of the New Testament. Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead.

- Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels

Those testimonies are varied, but generally fall into one or more of four categories:

  1. Apperances of the Jesus the disciples knew and recognized

  2. Apperances of a Jesus the disciples did not recognize

  3. Appearances of a Jesus who can appear and disappear at will

  4. Apperances of Jesus in a vision

In the first group is John 21, where the disciples see Jesus at the seashore, and Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?". Also in this group is Matthew 28:16-20, wher e Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee and gives them some final instructions. Jesus' conversation with Thomas in John 20:24-29 also fits into this category.

In the second group is the story of the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-32. The two disciples walk and talk with him but do not know it is him until the very end. In John 20:14-17, Mary Magdalene at first does not recognize Jesus when he appears to her at the tomb.

The walk to Emmaus also fits in the third group, as Jesus vanishes once the disciples recognize him. Also in this category are stories in John 20:19-23 and Luke 24:36-43 telling of Jesus appearing to his disciples inside a locked room. In the Luke account, Jesus then proves he is not a ghost by eating a piece of fish. Jesus' conversation with Thomas mentioned above can also fit in this category, as he had once again appeared inside a locked room.

The most famous example in the fourth category is the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, recorded in Acts 9 and repeated with slightly different details in Acts 22 and 26. The most vivid example is the vision given to John of Patmos, now known as the book of Revelation.

It is impossible to reconcile every detail of all the apperances. In Matthew 28:10 Jesus tells the disciples to return to Galilee, but in Acts 1:4 he tells them not to leave Jerusalem. In some gospels, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but in others he doesn't. No matter how we put the pieces together, there are elements of the resurrection experiences that must remain a mystery to us.

But for a secular historian like Michael Grant, the only mystery of that first Easter morning is: Who took the body? The great irony is that the empty tomb can be utterly convincing as a historical event, yet utterly unconvincing as evidence of the resurrection. By itself the tomb proves nothing.

That may be at the root of liberal attempts to minimize the importance of the tomb. Because, for the disciples, it was not the disapperance of the corpse that transformed their lives, it was the reappearance of the living Christ. It was the fact that he returned to them, many times and in many ways. And he continues to be present in the lives of Christians even today.

That's where we find the meaning of the resurrection. Christ is alive! He has conquered death, and he will be with us to the very end of the age.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

talking past each other

In a recent blog, John the Methodist said that conservatives and liberals talk past each other when discussing the virgin birth, the resurrection and other doctrines.

It's true: Conservatives and liberals begin with different assumptions, and therefore cannot help but reach different conclusions. Is there a way around the impasse? I think so, but only if both sides are willing to reexamine the way we talk with each other about our faith.

The Bible is an ancient book, yet we read it through a modern (or postmodern) filter. One of the hallmarks of modernism is to pull things apart and analyze them in detail. This is a major reason our science far surpasses anything premodern people ever developed. We also trust in reason to a far greater extent than our ancient or medieval ancestors.

So even though we start with different assumptions, we still share a number of assumptions that would have been utterly foreign to the Bible writers.

A liberal might say that the resurrection is true, even if it is not factual. A conservative might counter that if it's not factual, it can't be true. To some extent I can see both sides. The truth of the resurrection goes far deeper than the bare fact of an empty tomb. At the same time, if the tomb was not found empty, why shouldn't the gospel writers just skip to the Upper Room? What other purpose can the tomb stories serve?

And yet, it seems to me the whole argument misses the point.

I have more to say about this, but I'm going to wait until Easter morning to post it.

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