A correction (and confession) about NT Wright and Calvinism...

So I may have misspoken on Monday when I said that N.T. Wright is “not a Calvinist.”   

As several of you have pointed out, NT Wright does indeed consider his views to be in keeping with Calvin and the Reformed tradition, and his recent debates with John Piper and company over justification are something of an internal skirmish rather than a theological divide. 

My mistake. I apologize. 

Many of you also pointed out that I’ve got a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Calvinism and Reformed theology, and this is indeed true. I suspect it's because the Calvinism with which I most often interact is the Calvinism of John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Justin Taylor, and their followers...and those have been largely negative encounters, both theologically and personally. Still, the Reformed tradition is much more diverse than The Gospel Coalition and I need to learn more about it. 

Sorry for the mixup. And thanks for being there to offer gentle criticism when I need it. 

Anyone know of any articles or books that might clarify some of this for us? 

UPDATE- 3/29/12 - Okay, I’ve done a bit more research and will share what I’ve learned in Monday’s post. THANK YOU for your thoughtful comments and links. Good discussion!

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I Could Have Used This Book Twelve Years Ago: A Review of “The Evolution of Adam” by Peter Enns

Within the first week of my freshman year of college, my Introduction to World Literature class included a reading of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian myth about a hero who is described as 1/3 man and 2/3 god.

As we read the text together in class, I couldn't help but notice some striking similarities between this text and the familiar texts of Genesis and Ecclesiastes, but when we got to the part where Gilgamesh speaks with Utnapishtim, a survivor of the Great Flood, I disintegrated into a full-fledged faith crisis.  So much of the Gilgamesh flood story sounded just like “my” flood story from Genesis: Both accounts included a boat in which just a few people, along with animals, are saved from a universal flood.  In both stories, the boat comes to rest on a mountain and birds are sent out to find land. And both stories end with a sacrifice to a deity. And my literature book dated the writing of Gilgamesh before the writing of Genesis! 

I was at a conservative Christian college, and so my professor insisted that the texts had been misdated and that the story of Gilgamesh represented some sort of distortion of the historical/scientific account of Adam and Eve, Noah, and the flood. But my literary instincts had kicked in and I just wasn’t buying it. 

“The similarities between these texts must mean that they are of the same genre and share a similar context,” my English-major mind was screaming.  “Why would we regard one as history and the other as story when they use such similar images, styles, symbols, and plotlines? That just doesn’t make sense.” 

Twelve years later, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns has confirmed my suspicions, but in a way that has somehow managed to strengthen my faith rather than weaken it, through a fantastic book entitled The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins.

“The early chapters of Genesis are not a literal or scientific description of historical events but a theological statement in an ancient idiom, a statement about Israel’s God and Israel’s place in the world of God’s people,” Enns explains. “The core issue raised by ancient Near Eastern data has helped calibrate the genre of the biblical creation accounts. The failure to appreciate that genre calibration is responsible for much of the tension in the evolution discussion....To observe the similarities between the creation and flood stories and the literature of the ancient Near East, and to insist that all of those other writings are clearly a-historical while Genesis is somehow presenting history—this is not a strong position of faith, but rather a weak one, where Scripture must conform to one’s expectations.” 

Enns goes on to remind readers that “a text’s meaning is rooted in its historical and literary context,” and to argue that the historical and literary context of much of the Old Testament can be found in the questions and concerns of post-exilic Israel. 

I first heard Enns present these ideas at a conference hosted by the BioLogos Foundation in 2010, and it was as if a light clicked on in my head.  As a lover of literature, it made perfect sense to me that the best way to understand an author’s meaning is to study the time and culture in which the author wrote, to get a sense of the sort of questions people were asking at the time. Taking this approach to the Bible does not weaken it, but rather respects it for what it is, not what we want it to be

The Evolution of Adam not only answers just about every question I had after Enns’ Biologos lecture, but also includes a lengthy and thoughtful treatment of the apostle Paul’s Adam, again seeking to understand Paul’s intent within his unique context and culture. Enns is quick to note that it is Paul’s view of Adam rather than the Genesis account itself that causes most Christians to wrestle with the implications of evolution, and so it is Paul’s view of Adam that must be investigated. 

“Paul’s use of the Adam story,” Enns concludes, “serves a vital theological purpose in explaining to his ancient readers the significance for all humanity of Christ’s death and resurrection. His use of the Adam story, however, cannot and should not be the determining factor in whether biblically faithful Christians can accept evolution as the scientific account of human origins—and the gospel does not hang in the balance.” 

This may seem like an impossibly complicated topic to cover in a mere 147 pages, but Enns manages to do so with astounding clarity and insight. He is of the best scholarly writers I’ve ever encountered because he somehow manages to be thorough, personable, and readable all at the same time.

In The Evolution of Adam, you’ll find accessible introductions to everything from source criticism to the New Perspective on Paul, which will make you feel oh-so-caught-up on all the important trends in biblical scholarship.  (Try not to show off at parties.) 

For me, this book served as both a reality check and an inspiration—a rare combination that you just won’t find in most books that take historical and literary criticism seriously. I wish I could get into all the details of what made this book so helpful, but this would require a series of posts that will have to wait for a later time. 

For now, just know that The Evolution of Adam comes with my heartfelt, enthusiastic recommendation. Learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, means taking its context and history seriously. Enns has managed to do that in a way that both enlightens and encourages. 

I’ll conclude with a quote from The Evolution of Adam that ties together perfectly yesterday’s post and today’s: 

For many, it is important for the future viability of faith, let alone the evolution-Christianity discussion, that we recognize and embrace the fact that the Bible is a thoroughly enculturated product. But it is not enough to merely say so and press on, with a quaint nod or an embarrassed shuffle of the feet. It is important for future generations of Christians to have a view of the Bible where its rootedness in ancient ways of thinking is embraced as a theological positive, not a problem to be overcome. At present there is  a lot of fear about the implications of bringing evolution and Christianity together, and this fear needs to be addressed head-on. Many fear that we are on a slippery slope, to use the hackneyed expression. Perhaps the way forward is not to resist the slide so much as to stop struggling, look around, and realize that we may have been on the wrong hill altogether.

Be sure to check out the Brazos Press Web site this week. You can enter win a giveaway in which the grand prize is a book package that includes:

  • The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns
  • Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns
  • The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith
  • Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible by John Polkinghorne
  • The Mind and the Machine by Matthew Dickerson

(Five runners up will receive copies of The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns) 

If some of these titles sound familiar, it’s because most of them are on my list of books to read and discuss on the blog. So go enter!

 

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Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders: Is God Really Omnipotent?

So my friends Tripp and Bo from Homebrewed Christianity have been talking...and talking...and talking...about this thing called Process Theology. In fact, it will be a major topic at this year’s Emergent Village Theological Conversation, January 31-February 2, in Claremont, California.  

Now, I don’t know much about Process Theology. When folks start to discuss it, I mostly nod and smile and try to keep up. But since it’s become such a hot topic,  Bo and Tripp volunteered to provide us with a sort of introduction to Process Theology, and then to stay on-hand for your questions. 

I haven't done enough research to give my own opinion...so please don't take this post as such... but something tells me this could spark quite the conversation! 


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Transient


Omnipotence:  A Compliment Jesus Wants You to Take Back

By Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders 

I (Tripp) have one important rule to guide my theological thinking: God has to at least be as loving as Jesus.  
It seems rather obvious for a Christian, given our confession that Jesus was indeed the ‘image of the invisible God,’ but throughout church history, God, Jesus’ Abba, has been given a very theologically destructive compliment-- namely that God is Omnipotent , All Powerful.  

While this philosophical compliment is absent in Scripture, yet present throughout much theology, it was John Calvin that made God’s power the ultimate theological principle.  I used to be a Calvinist. I read Calvin’s Institutes in high school, used Charles Spurgeon sermons for devotions, and quoted Jonathan Edwards to my crazy Arminian friends in college.  Then I realized the God I had come to know in Christ was way too awesome for my Calvinist theology.  The theology was not simply off, but set against God’s nature, name, and essence being love.  

This isn’t to say Calvinists aren’t Christians (or that I wasn’t when I was there theologically). I am simply saying that omnipotence is a theological compliment Jesus wants you to take back for four reason: 

1. An omnipotent deity is responsible for the evil in the world.  When God can do whatever God wants to do, whenever God wants to do it, everything that happens is either the direct will of God or permitted by God.  Of course Calvin, in his obsession with making God uber-powerful, rejects the idea of God’s permissive will and keeps God as the prime actor in all actions.  That means God has willed genocide, murder, rape, cancer, abuse, and the torture of children.  When God is omnipotent, one can read history as the will of God, and history is way too full of evil, suffering, and violence to imagine it as revelatory of God’s will.  If God ever willed the violent death of an innocent child, then that God is not Jesus’ Abba or worthy of a Christian’s worship.

2. An omnipotent deity is not capable of genuine relationships or love.  Loving relationships require openness, vulnerability, risk, and genuine duration.  We  intuit this. For example, when two lovers consummate their marriage in a passionate act of sweet love-making, it is their freedom vulnerability, and willingness to risk that make their intercourse an act of love and not rape.  If one side of the relationship  is determined, it just isn’t a relationship.  I remember in my Calvinist past thinking that God elected me to love God, but being coerced  sounds much more like a relationship to a gangster than God. There’s a big difference between a puppet and a person, an object and a subject.  The God of Jesus created, sustains, and redeems people, children of God.

Transient

3. An omnipotent deity runs eternity like a tyrannical dictator.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Paul said that, and I think it makes perfect sense.  Of course, if Calvin is correct and God is actually the one in charge, then it becomes a bit odd...or flat our disgusting...to simultaneously think God elects people to suffer for all eternity for their sins.  That’s worse than me spanking my son for eating a cookie I made and gave to him.  This image of God is morally bankrupt and need not be defended.  Instead we could imagine God to be a Woman who seeks out each lost coin until it is found, or a faithful and patient Father waiting to throw a party for the return of his son.  These images sound like a God as loving as Jesus.

4.  An omnipotent deity builds crosses.  The cross and resurrection are the center piece of the faith.  The cross of Jesus was not simply a convenient way for Jesus to die so that God could raise him from the dead, but a symbol of Rome’s power.  Rome and only Rome built crosses and put people on them.  Jesus died with the power of empire inscribed on his cross-dead body.  It is that body that God raised from the dead, and it is the future of the Cross-dead Christ that we as Christians share. Yet for some reason, we so easily speak about God’s power as if God was being revealed in the building of crosses and not in their bearing. God’s self-revelation in Jesus was a rejection of the coercive, determining, and controlling power that the empires of this world love so much for the power of love.  Infinite divine love, the freedom it gives, the risks it takes and the possibilities it continuously creates offer an alternative ultimate theological principle for Christian theology and one I think coheres with the story of Jesus.  

Process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once stated that, “When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers.... The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly.... But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”  

This observation rings true to me, but Caesar’s lawyers do not have to have the last word and Christian theology does not need to protect an idolatrous image of God anymore.  

Process is a theology that has grown over the last 100 years from the philosophy of Mr. Whitehead. It is a global community (big in China and Europe) that engages both theory and practice with contemporary scholarship. For those who take it theologically, it is a way to address the Bible that is fully faithful to Jesus‘ vision, while integrating modern Biblical scholarship at every level.  

The easiest access point for most is to say that because God IS love, then God’s very nature is loving, and so God’s use of power is not coercive - it is persuasive (almost seductive).

 So God is not omnipotent. 

Secondly, God is omniscient in that God knows all there is to know - but the future is undetermined. 

Thirdly, God is omnipresent in an even more radical way than traditionally thought.

Lastly, God is neither immutable nor impassable - those are concerns of early Greek thought and not from the Christian scripture. 
So quit saying God is omnipotent.  Jesus was just too loving for that to stick.  

To learn more about Process Theology, check out  Marjorie Suchocki's short PDF intro (free), and Bruce Epperly's book, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. 

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Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders are two of the theological brewers at Homebrewed Christianity and are helping to host this year’s Emergent Village Theological Conversation January 31-February 2 in Claremont, CA.   Their hope is to have a dialogue about the Christian Scriptures that results in a very different vision for the life of the faith lived out in community. 

If you have any questions for Bo and Tripp, they’ll be on-hand today to address some of them! So take advantage! 

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Guest Post: Bridging the Theological Divide

friends: they are beautiful :)photo © 2010 Anshad Ameenza | more info (via: Wylio)

Today’s guest post comes to us from David Nilsen, whose contribution to the Rally to Restore Unity was one of my favorites. David is a writer from a small town in Ohio. He currently works as an IT Specialist at a bank and also runs his own used book business on the side.  He and his wife Lyndie have experienced some changes in their faith over the past few years, and are currently in the process of leaving (on good terms) their Reformed church and looking for a new one to call home. David blogs about faith, marriage, parenting and adoption. And he says he can make better paper airplanes than you.  

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One Sunday when I was eleven years old my dad was the guest speaker at a church in a nearby town. He spent much of his sermon talking about the value of human life and how horrible euthanasia was. Being eleven and having the vocabulary of an eleven year old, I spent the entire sermon thinking, What does my dad have against the youth in Asia? This seems racist. 

What made it even more uncomfortable for me was that a friend's family was there, and they had brought their sixteen year old foreign exchange student from Thailand. He was sitting in the pew in front of me. I spent half the sermon staring at the back of Thailand Pete's head thinking, This must be hard for him. 

I exited the church somewhat somber, trying to figure out what the Asian young people had done to piss my dad off so much, wondering if maybe racism was okay for Christians as long as it wasn't against black people. That didn't seem right, because even though everyone I knew was white except for Thailand Pete, I knew we weren't supposed to be racist. Like seriously ever. It was in the Bible. 

I finally asked my dad about it later that day. And he clarified himself. And I went on with the rest of my day and my life never again having to think my dad was racist, which was and is a relief.  

As an adult Christian I have often disagreed both culturally and doctrinally with the conservative believers with whom I attend church,  and yet we've remained in fellowship together. I have learned two important lessons from this that I will carry with me the rest of my life as a follower of Jesus. The first is that actually talking things out clears up a lot of misunderstandings, and the second is that it's really hard to feel hateful toward people who just fed you dinner. 

I agree on very little doctrinally with my pastors. They are Reformed, with all the beliefs that come with that. They are also among the best men I have ever known. I have given their Calvinist hearts plenty to worry about in the last few years, but they have consistently treated me with kindness, grace and understanding. They have told me when they disagree and think I am on dangerous ground theologically, but this has always been framed within the context of love. A relationship of mutual respect has allowed our differences to be a sharpening tool for us rather than a blade of division.

If I were not privileged to be in these relationships, it would be easy for me to demonize or belittle people who hold theological beliefs more conservative than my own. But when the person who holds some doctrinal position diametrically opposed to my own is sitting across the table from me eating chicken wings while we watch football, laughing at the joke I just made, it becomes a little harder to start a flame war with him online. We're friends, so when we find ourselves stuck between parting ways or talking out differences, we've so far been able to choose the latter. 

You will not always like the people who disagree with you, and you will not always be able to have civil disagreements with them. But if you can start and maintain relationships with Christians who see things differently than you do, you'll discover they are real human beings who care about other people. When they think a lot of the same things are funny, and when they like a lot of the TV shows you like, you'll have a harder time calling them (and people like them) Pharisees or Heretics or Nazis or whatever else you are tempted to call the people with whom you disagree.   

When I thought my dad had an issue with all the teenagers in Asia, two things kept me from taking the misunderstanding too far. I asked (and allowed) him to explain himself at the first available opportunity, and I trusted his heart in the mean time because our existing relationship had revealed him to be an all around good guy. If we use the same pattern with other Christians, we can often save ourselves, and I think maybe even God, a lot of grief.

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Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you were a minority, theologically or politically? How did you maintain healthy relationships in spite of that? 

[Note: If you are in the process of deciding whether or not to stay at your church, David's been working through that on his blog and has some great thoughts.]

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Rob Bell, the SBC, and The Age of Accountability

Yellow Rosettephoto © 2007 Meena Kadri | more info (via: Wylio)

As you may have heard, last week the Southern Baptist Convention responded to pastor Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins, with a resolution declaring that “the Bible clearly teaches that God will judge the lost at the end of the age,” and that such judgment will  include the “conscious, eternal suffering" for all non-Christians. 

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained the rationale behind the resolution as such: 

The publicity surrounding Bell’s new book indicates that he is ready to answer one of the hardest questions -- the question of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. With that question come the related questions of heaven, hell, judgment, and the fate of the unregenerate. The Bible answers these questions clearly enough, but few issues are as hard to reconcile with the modern or postmodern mind than this. Of course, it was hard to reconcile with the ancient mind as well. The singularity of the person and work of Christ and the necessity of personal faith in him for salvation run counter to the pluralistic bent of the human mind, but this is nothing less than the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation."

Rustin J. Umstattd, assistant professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary added:  

It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell…are troubled by its implications. But being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, Christians cannot allow their instincts to inform their theology, only Scripture. 

But this rationale represents a major inconsistency in Baptist teaching. 

If the members of the Southern Baptist Convention truly believe that only those who place personal faith in Jesus Christ will be saved and that no concessions to this belief should be made on the basis of its troubling moral implications, then for consistency’s sake, they must also vote to condemn the teaching of the age of accountability. 

The age of accountability refers to a belief that children under a certain age (usually twelve or so), will be granted salvation regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. Most Baptists I know believe in the age of accountability, and even the SBC's Baptist Faith and Message makes it implicit in its statement that people are not morally accountable until “they are capable of moral action.”

And yet this concept is never explicitly stated in Scripture, nor does it appear in any of the historic Christian creeds.  

The age of accountability is a concept born from the compassion of the human heart, from a deep and intrinsic sense that a loving, good, and just God would not condemn little children or the mentally handicapped to such suffering when they could certainly bear no responsibility for their faith.  It is a theology created by discomfort. 

I’m not interested in defending Bell’s book in its entirety—I thought some of his exegesis was sloppy—but the questions he raises about the destiny un-evangelized are not that different from the questions traditionally raised by Baptists about the assumption within other Christian traditions that unbaptized babies spend eternity in hell. 

What is the difference, really, between a four-year-old child who is incapable of making a conscious decision to trust Jesus because of his age and an adult living in outer-Mongolia in 50 A.D. who is incapable of making a decision to trust Jesus because he couldn’t possibly hear of him? Aren’t both of them born with a sin nature? And aren’t both of them inherently valuable to God? If exclusivism is true, then the majority of the human population was damned to hell without even the possiblilty of being saved. 

I am often told by fellow Christians that an inclusivist reading of Scripture is the result of a sentimental “bleeding heart.” And yet most of those people embrace without question the age of accountability and reel at the idea of a non-elect two year-old burning alive for eternity.   I believe we were created to reel at that idea, just as we were created to reel at the idea of a young Muslim woman being tortured forever by a God whose name she never knew.  I believe that our impulse towards grace is a reflection of God’s image inside of us, not a weakness of which we should be ashamed. 

In matters like these, Christians should of course be careful of asserting with absolute certainty how God will judge our fellow human beings. We should also be wary of any suggestion that our instinctive desire for love and compassion is a weakness that should be overcome. The very formation of the Southern Baptist denomination reflects the disastrous consequences of confining morality to that which is explicitly stated in Scripture to the neglect of the conscience. Conscience should be tested with Scripture, certainly, but it should never be silenced. 

Regardless of one’s position on the theological issues here, it’s plain to see that if the members of the Southern Baptist Convention intend to hold to their exclusivist position consistently and condemn as dangerous all who seek to harmonize scripture with the human conscience, then it’s time for them to confront their own theological accommodations and declare the unconverted child as hopeless as the unconverted adult. 

I only hope that this time it will be harder for the delegates to raise their hands. 

For more on why exclusivism is not the only view supported by Scripture, check out this older post.

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