GOD Needs Serious P.R.

Why is the GOD of the New Testament full of love and eager to save us, when the GOD of the Old Testament was so angry all of the time, wanting to kill all opposed to GOD’s plan?

Even more important, how much of GOD’s activity in the Old Testament should we seek in our world today?

These two questions trouble both atheists and believers. The following “filter” helps me make sense of all the violence that I read in the Bible, and especially all of the violence commanded by God in the Old Testament (for example, see Exodus 17:14 and I Samuel 15). My “filter of historical perspective” contains the following three points:

  • God works through people.
  • We are shaped by our culture.
  • God accepts us where we are.

In pursuing this filter, we must first take off our “blinders” and see the offensiveness of violence in Scripture.

Offensive Violence in Scripture

In my efforts to read the Bible each year, I cringe when Psalm 137 comes up next in my reading schedule because I dislike its conclusion:

“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:8-9 NIV).

I am not comfortable visualizing this portion of God’s word. Something deep inside of me screams, “How did this psalm slip past the divine editor?!” I get that the Babylonians treated Jews living in Judah badly, “showing them no mercy” (Isaiah 47:6). But this level of vengeance sinks below darkness into the realm of evil. So, How should we interpret this text? And, How do we apply this text to our daily lives?

In his book, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), Eric Seibert differentiated between “wrongful” violence and “virtuous” violence. The death of Abel, who was murdered by his brother, violence of scripture - jpeg medresulted in God’s displeasure followed by a curse on Cain so severe that any reader comprehends this as a “wrongful” act of violence. Likewise, God pronounced judgment on King David when he ordered the death of Uriah the Hittite through battle in order to cover-up his affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (II Samuel 11-12). No doubt about the “wrongfulness” of this violence.

To Eric Seibert, “virtuous violence” refers to violent activity that is portrayed in the Bible as “being appropriate, justified, and perhaps even praise-worthy” (page 28). For example, Am I ok with David cutting off Goliath’s head and with the execution of Haman as described in the book of Esther (Esther 7:8-10)? Sisera “cruelly oppressed” the Israelites for twenty years! Did he deserve to die when Jael drove a tent peg through his head and into the ground with a hammer while he was sleeping (Judges 4)? Should Jezebel get what she deserved for ordering the death of Naboth (I Kings 21 and II Kings 9:30-37) and for a whole bunch of other bad stuff?

Think about it! We teach preschoolers about Noah building an ark to save his family from God’s judgment on Planet Earth. But do we encourage them to see children like them drowning, to hear their screams of panic, or to know that God caused their deaths? And what about the Exodus narrative? Do we focus on the liberation of Israel from their oppressors and pass over Egypt’s destruction? To the prophets of Israel, God seems to enjoy the sight of human blood and dead bodies! (Ezekiel 21, also Jeremiah 25:15-38, esp. verse 33 and Isaiah 13:9). It is this kind of “virtuous violence” that gives Eric Seibert, and many theologians, lots of discomfort.

Huge chunks of the Old Testament deserve the “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) film-rating system because of the pervasive, persistent and pernicious violence found within its pages – with most of it coming from the hands of God. Raymond Schwager wrote (Must There Be Scapegoats: Violence and Redemption in the Bible, 1987):

“…violence plays a prominent role in the Old Testament books. They contain over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others” (page 47).

“The theme of God’s bloody vengeance occurs in the Old Testament even more frequently than the problem of human violence. Approximately one thousand passages speak of Yahweh’s blazing anger, of his punishments by death and destruction, and how like a consuming fire (God) passes judgment, takes revenge, and threatens annihilation. He manifests his might and glory through warfare and holds court like a wrathful avenger. No other topic is as often mentioned as God’s bloody works” (page 55).

How do we make sense of this biblical carnage, with much of it demanded by God?

Any response to this question must be viewed within its complexity. I like to compare this complexity with the Mississippi River. The mighty Mississippi grows from a small wilderness stream out from Lake Itasca, Minnesota, into one of the greatest rivers on our planet, with a watershed that is the fourth largest in the world. Here is a short list of major tributaries that flow into the Mississippi River:

  1. the Minnesota River
  2. the St. Croix River
  3. the Black RiverMississippi River - Watershed Map
  4. the La Crosse River
  5. the Root River
  6. the Wisconsin River
  7. the Rock River
  8. the Iowa River
  9. the Skunk River
  10. the Des Moines River
  11. the Illinois River
  12. the Missouri River
  13. the Ohio River
  14. the Arkansas River

Like the Mississippi River, this topic contains so many “theological tributaries” that just one blog entry captures neither its majesty nor its complexity. The following “theological tributaries” will not be addressed in this blog:

    1. The historicity of biblical events, especially the conquest of Canaan
    2. Understanding God anthropomorphically
    3. Culture of warfare in the ancient world
    4. The nature of human sacrifice in Canaanite religions
    5. The reality of primogeniture
    6. Treatment of women in ancient cultures
    7. Role and place of slavery in the ancient world until the decline of the Roman empire
    8. Methods for interpreting and applying Scripture (wrapped up in ancient cultures) in the culture of today
    9. Issues of progressive revelation during the 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus
    10. Theological significance of war in ancient Israel
    11. Development and efficacy of sacrificial systems in ancient religions
    12. The death of Jesus as interpretted by the early church
    13. Philosophical issues surrounding God and the problem of evil
    14. Biblical treatment of children, especially parental use of spanking (the rod) when correcting children
    15. How the ancient Hebrews understood “Sovereignty of God” issues

Where we start in our understanding makes all the difference in the results that follow! Just as the Mississippi River has its own headwaters in its journey to the Gulf of Mexico, so my “filter of historical perspective” has served me as a kind of “headwaters” in my journey to make sense of the great chasm between the violence of GOD in the Old Testament and the love of GOD in the New Testament. It’s all about WHERE we start!

Perhaps the following three points from my “filter of historical perspective” will assist you as well:

1. God works through people.

What would the birth of Jesus look like if God did NOT work through people?

For maximum shock value, Jesus would materialize (Beam me up, Scotty?) during a full session of the Great Sanhedrin to announce, “My name is Jesus and I am God.” All present (about 70 Jewish leaders) would bow in worship and proclaim, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!” Then Jesus would reply, “Excellent, now let’s get to work.”

The ancient Greeks would improve on this theme with bizarre stories of their Rhea w Kronosgods, like Kronos and Rhea. The father of Kronos felt threatened by him so Kronos killed his father. Likewise, Kronos feared his own children. As soon as Rhea, his wife, gave birth Kronos would eat the child. Thus, Kronos devoured Hera, Hestia, Demeter, Hades, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. When she finally grew weary of losing all of her children, Rhea gave Kronos a rock wrapped in a blanket instead of Zeus. She carried Zeus to Crete where he was raised by a goat creature. Eventually, Zeus defeated his father, Kronos, and forced him to spit up his siblings. Of course Kronos had swallowed them whole – they were not injured.

What would the birth of Jesus look like if God did work through people?

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled”  (Luke 1:38 NIV). This simple response from the mother of Jesus provides us with a template for cooperating with God. By working through people, God provides us humans with true meaning in life. This ultimate, exhilarating experience comes as we look back and sense God doing something through us.

“Without God I can’t, but without me God won’t” (attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo).

2. We are shaped by our culture.

Our culture impacts us so much that we don’t notice stuff until someone outside our culture points out the differences to us. Differences can be obvious, like photographs taken of a rock band in 1979. Other differences are much more subtle, like how we greet one another. For many living in the “hood” of Philadelphia, “the nod” communicates the “hello” greeting.

This morning I greeted a repair tech in the library parking lot and he responded, “How are you?” I decided to have some fun and said, “Tired, how are you?” This brief interaction caught him so off-guard that he grunted, “Get more sleep.” I moved to the Philly area ten years ago from the Midwest where I grew up on a farm in Iowa and lived my adult life in Minnesota (and four years in the Chicago area). I found people in the Philly area will ask how I am doing but never wait for my response. I quickly learned that the phrase, “How are you?” is ONLY a greeting, and nothing more. Even after ten years, I cannot respond to the “How are you?” greeting like a local resident. I am still outside their culture.

A recent update from Quora Digest (a question & answer web site) asked people to respond to this question, “What are American customs that seem weird to foreigners?” Here are a few responses from Veronica, a young lady that moved from Ukraine to the United States when she was thirteen:

        • Pink and blue. I had no idea before, – -I suppose, it’s another aftermath of a highly successful marketing phenomenon I refer to as “Disney culture” — but my own culture shock was the realization that there is a fairly acknowledged concept of gendered colors. I still prefer dark colors personally, e.g. dark green / brown, but find it tricky to shop for such colors at a minimum for girls (adult styles are much more neutral). It doesn’t end with clothes — bicycles, gear, everything MUST be pink, or somehow your child is no longer considered girly. Very odd.
        • This one is strictly in comparison with the former USSR, but I found it odd that the schoolchildren would not stand up to greet their teachers upon entering – this was a sign of respect in the old country. Also, no uniforms and everyone wears something different daily, and it’s considered nearly unsanitary to appear wearing the same outfit 2 days in a row
        • Reciting the pledge of allegiance to the Flag in public school daily
        • School buses

And this “blindness” that we experience within our culture can impact us in very unexpected ways. For example, Why is Barbie the “go to” doll for three generations of women? Only one in 100,000 women actually match the Barbie body image! Women have desired that Barbie look so much that some have even altered themselves via plastic surgery! Model Cindy Jackson morphed herself into Barbie after 31 operations in 14 years. She said on CBS News (2004), “I looked at a Barbie doll when I was 6 and said, ‘This is what I want to look like.’ I think a lot of little 6-year-old girls or younger even now are looking at that doll and thinking, ‘I want to be her.’”

Many believe that Barbie shapes self-perceptions of “body image” for girls– and warps how men view women sexually. Even professional counselors dismiss Barbie for Barbies-Body“damaging women’s body images, or at least being a symbol for it.” Florence Williams, a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s public health school, said, “Kids are just bombarded with images that are really just not true to nature. It can potentially damage your self-esteem or limit your world view… It’s important for young boys to understand women’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes because they grow up expecting girls’ bodies to look a certain way.” Just this year, Mattel announced changes to their line of Barbie dolls, including dolls with a variety of height and size combinations.

I strongly believe that we are shaped by our culture so that our values and our world view changes as our culture changes. In 1963, my family traveled through Mississippi and Alabama on our way to Florida when I was ten years old. We stopped somewhere and I noticed two water fountains – and one was labeled “colored.” I thought to myself, “Wow! They have Kool-Aid here!” So I took a drink and discovered it was only water! Dad grabbed my arm with shock written all over his face. We never talked about that moment – my introduction to institutionalized racism. Now we look back in time and wonder how decent people could support such racism. How!? We were shaped by our culture.

If we are products of our culture, then we must see this same dynamic occurring in Scripture. For example…

In his article, “Banning Ba’al,” Hershel Shanks speculated that King David prohibited the naming of children using Ba’al in compound names (Baal means lord or master and referred to the Storm God, the lead deity of the Canaanites). People living before King David were given names such as Jerub-baal (“Let Baal contend with him” Judges 6:32), Esh-baal and Merib-baal (1 Chronicles 9:39-40). Hershel Shanks noted that “Ba’al names simply do not appear in the Bible after David’s time” and then cited archaeological evidence that supports this biblical phenomenon.

So, What was going on? Shanks thinks that King David, officially, wanted Judah to become monotheistic. But he also wonders if the name of the son of King Saul, who reigned for two years (2 Samuel 2:10), might have been an unofficial reason — his name was Esh-baal.

The ancient Hebrews were completely impacted by their Canaanite neighbors! Forgetting the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Joshua, the ancient Hebrews, and even King Saul, adopted the custom of naming their children using a foreign deity’s name! What was common in the culture of the ancient Canaanites became normal for the ancient Hebrews. They were shaped by their culture.

3. God accepts us where we are.

Since we are products of our time, God meets us within our cultures.  God has chosen to meet people in every culture within the values of THAT culture. And this means that God works through us where we are and NOT where we should be! If God waited for us to “moral up” to divine standards, then God could never work through any of us. This is why God could empower someone like Samson even though he was a sex addict (Judges 16).

I believe, very strongly, that God really did command Moses and Joshua to commit genocide because cultural values in that ancient world demanded genocide as the only option in conquest.  If we find God-initiated genocide reprehensible, then we have not IMG_7569smallmade the effort to “get inside the heads” of people living in ancient times! We must study history and the social sciences in order to understand the cultural values that shape the actions of individuals, groups, and nations over time.

For example, in his book, The Gods of the Nations, Daniel Block identified the inter-relationships among a deity, the people worshiping this deity, and the land these people lived on. Because land resided within the jurisdiction of the local deity, the people living on that land became subjects to that deity in a kind of landlord relationship. All ancient peoples shared this world-view, including the ancient Hebrews.

This is why Naaman asked for “as much earth as a pair of mules can carry” back to his native land, Aram (II Kings 5:17 NIV). In Naaman’s world-view, he could not worship Yahweh in Aram because Aram belonged to the god, Rimmon. Taking dirt from Israel made it possible for Yahweh to be worshiped in Aram.

God accepted this feudal world-view and chose to identify with and work within the cultures of the ancient Near East. Daniel Block wrote extensively of this “deity-nation association” that was “intricately tied to territorial considerations,” making seven observations about the “extent to which the Israelite perspective shared or deviated from the prevailing viewpoints of their neighbors” (pages 149-50).

Therefore, we should not be surprised when God commanded Moses and Joshua to act in a way that would fit within the expectations of ancient peoples who lived on a divine estate under a covenant relationship with their patron god. Based on Block’s conclusions, we should not be surprised when God behaved like a king who managed land disputes in the following texts of Scripture:

When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot (Deuteronomy 2:19 NIV).

And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Leviticus 18:28 NIV).

It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end (Deuteronomy 11:12 NIV).

And, When we make the effort to “get inside the heads” of people living in ancient times, we should not be surprised when God commanded genocide in the conquest of Canaan. In his commentary on Judges, Lawson Younger defined and explained the Hebrew concept of “herem” (Hebrew: חרם, ḥērem) that is translated in the New International Version as “devoted thing” or “totally destroy.” He wrote:

The kind of warfare attributed to Israel in the conquest of Canaan does not originate in a theology of “holy war” peculiar to Old Testament theology. Rather, it is a political ideology that Israel shared with other nations in the ancient Near East. All wars waged by a country were “holy wars,” dedicated to the glorification of its deity and the extension of the deity’s land and reign (page 29).

Mesha Stele in the Louvre Museum

The Mesha Stele in the Louvre Museum

This concept of “herem” was found among most  Semitic peoples — Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Akkadian (source). For example, we know from the Mesha Stele that King Mesha “slaughtered all the inhabitants of Nebo because he made the city a devoted city to his god Chemosh” (source). This example of Moabite “herem” — total destruction of people/ things devoted to Chemosh — occurred centuries AFTER the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Like his Semitic neighbors, King Mesha made a deal with his god that would sound something like this: “If I completely give this city to Chemosh, then Chemosh will look upon me with favor and perhaps give me victory over Israel!” Bible scholars still debate motivations behind “herem” but ancient people tried to obligate their patron deity in a “tit for tat” strategy with sacrifices that included livestock, other products from their land, conquered populations with their personal belongings, and even their own children.

We should not be surprised when the actions of people recorded for us in Scripture mirror the actions of their surrounding cultures. We should not surprised that God would command Moses, Joshua and the Israelites to “herem” the inhabitants of Canaan – men, women, children. God operated within the value system of this ancient culture.

And if we hold God responsible for their actions, then perhaps we should consider how much our actions mirror the actions of our surrounding cultures. In spite of all the atrocities and shortcomings throughout human history (and yes, even our own personal history), God accepts us where we are — and humanity where humanity is throughout human history.

Likewise, God operates with the value system of our current cultures. How is this possible?

  • God works through people.
  • We are shaped by our culture.
  • God accepts us where we are.


Ok! This blog is the blog that won’t end. I must stop here and continue in a future post to deal with concerns and questions about my “filter of historical perspective,” such as:

  • John Calvin’s concept of divine accommodation.
  • Issues of “political correctness.”
  • Making cultural amends.
  • When culture desensitizes us to destructive influences.
  • The nature of progressive revelation.
  • If “iron sharpens iron” with individuals, then “iron sharpens iron” with cultures.
  • Approaches in current scholarship to address multiple voices within the conquest narratives.
  • Problems with incarnational theology – that God identifies with people within their culture.



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Spiritual Intimacy – Predestination’s Preordained Problem

Tom and Ashley are on a date and walking down the street. Tom, feeling romantically and sexually attracted, timidly reaches out to hold Ashley’s hand and feels a thrill as their hands touch. Ashley does nothing, but six months later files a criminal complaint. Tom is guilty of “Criminal Sexual Contact.”


“Impossible!!” you say?!!

This “Tom and Ashley” scenario illustrates the level of legal involvement being considered by the American Law Institute. Right now, policy makers continue debating policies surrounding affirmative consent – the “yes means yes” rule. And, right now, they define criminal sexual contact as the touching of any body part, clothed or unclothed, with sexual gratification in mind (click here for newspaper article). All of this flows from trends to protect women from date rape — trends seen not only on college and university campuses, but also in the courts.

What’s their foundational assumption? That permission precedes any intimacy. That without this permission any attempt at intimacy becomes forced. That ALL people resist forced relationships! And especially forced intimate relationships!!

What if this “Tom and Ashley” scenario were extended to us and God? Without our free will — our permission — would not any relationship that we might have with God be a forced relationship?

In this blog I intend to explore issues of spiritual intimacy and to demonstrate the failure of predestination to explain why God must not be charged with spiritual rape.

An episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation captures the problems with an intimate relationship being forced upon another. In the episode, Liaisons (aired September 27, 1993), the Enterprise welcomes two alien ambassadors in a “cultural exchange” that will also send Captain Picard to their planet with Voval, the Iyaaran shuttle pilot, who is gruff and uncommunicative.

Their awkward silence is disrupted by a malfunction aboard their ship. Crashing on an unknown planet, Voval receives a concussion, but Picard is seemingly unhurt. He decides to seek help outside, but falls to the ground trying to traverse the planet’s stormy surface. While he lies unconscious, a human female silently drags him away.

Picard awakens on the distant planet in a small, dimly-lit cargo cabin. He learns that the woman’s name is Anna and that she is the sole survivor of a Terellian cargo freighter crash that occurred seven years before. Anna informs Picard that Voval did not survive the crash.

As this 10 minute video segment begins, Picard begins to realize that he is being held against his will.

At the conclusion of his ordeal, Captain Picard informed Ambassador Voval that what he did to Picard would be considered a crime on Earth. All of this puzzled the Ambassador greatly. Like any good “social scientist,” Voval attempted to replicate the original “experiment” by following the original circumstances as closely as possible — placing Picard into an equal context. But the experiment failed. And the experiment failed because Ambassador Voval misjudged the place of honesty and trust, permission and free will, and common values in healthy, intimate relationships.

Ambassador Vival needs a crash course on intimacy!

Intimacy refers to very close association, familiarity, contact. People experience intimacy whenever they feel safe emotionally while revealing deep personal thoughts or actions. However, feeling safe disappears quickly when choice (free will) disappears. No one can demand or control or manipulate intimacy because intimacy is voluntary and reciprocal.

What would intimacy with God look like? In his book Spiritual Intimacy, Richard Mayhue identified three biblical analogies that help us grasp what close association with God looks like:

  • Shepherd with sheep

Jesus described how sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd and how they willingly follow that voice. In fact, good shepherds become so close to their sheep that they would risk their lives to keep their sheep safe. Jesus clearly identified himself as this kind of “shepherd” (John 10:1-18).

  • Husband and wife

Most of us have no idea of the closeness experienced between a shepherd and sheep — relevant for those listening to Jesus, but not a part of our culture. For us, marriage works as a better analogy of intimacy. Scripture portrayed God as the husband of Israel (Isaiah 54:5 and Jeremiah 31:32) and Christ as the groom of the church (Ephesians 5:25-32).

  • The parent-child relationship

The Apostle Paul linked us to God in the very intimate parent/child relationship when he used, “Abba” (Aramaic for “Daddy”), in the following verses:

God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6 NIV) and

You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15 NIV).

When the Apostle Paul wrote (extensively) about “Christ in us” or “We in Christ,” he created the Medieval women of faith3mystical foundation that would fascinate followers of Jesus who longed for spiritual intimacy. Throughout church history we encounter people that sought this special intimacy with God. For example, in his book Seeking Spiritual Intimacy, Glenn E. Myers described a journey toward a deeper life guided by medieval women of faith. Early in the thirteenth century throughout Belgium and Germany, the Beguine movement resulted in thousands of women living in small communities of a dozen women. “The Beguines were ardently in love with the Lord, and rather than using the term ‘personal relationship’ as we might today, they employed the language of intimacy, viewing themselves as brides of Christ” (page 25) — often quoting from the Song of Solomon to express this love of Jesus. Today, “spiritual formation” represents the intentional path of seminarians and pastors toward spiritual intimacy with God.

In their book The God of Intimacy and Action, Tony Compolo and Mary Albert Darling describe how this kind of spiritual intimacy promotes the church’s mission of justice and evangelism. Darling explained that “there is a world of difference between studying about what makes for a good relationship and actually experiencing one.”

“Meditating on Scripture creates opportunities for us to come to Jesus in more intimate, mystical ways than ordinary study ever could. Perhaps the biggest lie in Christianity is that we can in fact be Christian without developing that kind of intimacy with Christ” (page 118).

Scripture repeatedly reported God’s frustration with generations of people that ought to value and enjoy close association with God, but instead choose other relationships — idols! For example, God became jealous and angry when Israel pursued the Baal of Peor (the god of the Moabite mountains) through sexual contact inherit in the rituals of that pagan cult (Numbers 25; Deuteronomy 4:3; Psalm 106:28-31; Hosea 9:10). These feelings of betrayal would be normal in any intimate relationship.

However, what kind of relationship can God enjoy with us if our free will disappears?

And there are plenty of verses in the Bible that seem to teach that God must override our free will so that we can enter into a personal relationship with God. Such as:

“No one can come to me (Jesus) unless the Father who sent me draws them…” [Jesus] went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (John 6:44 & 65 NIV).

Then he (Jesus) opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45 NIV).

Many scriptures reveal the relational distance between humanity and God is so great that we cannot enjoy this relationship without God’s assistance. For example:

The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one (Psalm 14:2-3 NIV).

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:6-8 NIV).

Within these Bible verses, Calvinism sees “total depravity” in people. Our sin contaminates every aspect of our lives so much, that we cannot do anything to move into a right relationship with God. God must take the initiative and give us the desire to even want this relationship with God! Calvinists call this gift from God, irresistible grace (or the “softer” term, effectual grace).

Now, we must deal with some definitions:

Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms - smallIrresistible Grace (or efficacious grace) is a doctrine in Christian theology particularly associated with Calvinism, which teaches that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (the elect) and, in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to faith in Christ (click here for reference).

Irresistible grace (Lat. gratia irresistibilis) A view stressed in Reformed theology that God’s grace as it works for the salvation of an individual will accomplish its purpose and will not be thwarted. It was one of the five canons of the Calvinistic Synod of Dort and part of TULIP (click here for reference).

Immanence and Transcendence. Theologians refer to the near presence of God as God’s immanence and the otherness or holiness or difference of God as God’s transcendence. Immanence and transcendence both describe God’s activity toward what is created and they must never be considered alone (immanence alone becomes pantheism and transcendence alone becomes deism). “As immanent, God energizes the wills of human beings by his Holy Spirit; as transcendent he is never to be equated with the world, the ”All,” or his creatures, and his Spirit is holy” (The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology, 2015).

Did you catch the language in these three definitions?

  • “overcomes their resistance”
  • “will not be thwarted”
  • “God energizes the wills of human beings by his Holy Spirit”

These definitions deny people their free will in any relationship with God! And this is a big problem for those who do not see predestination in terms of perspective (see my blog, Predestination is only a matter of perspective). Any other understanding of predestination exhibits varying degrees of God influencing us, even cajoling us, toward spiritual intimacy with God. Exactly how can this kind of spiritual intimacy with God be different from Tom’s attempt to connect with Ashley? In this comparison, both Tom and God would be guilty of initiating an intimate relationship without first securing permission. Or, as Captain Picard informed Ambassador Voval, what he did to Picard would be considered a crime on Earth. In effect, God would be guilty of “criminal spiritual contact!”

In his book Chosen But Free, Norman Geisler identified two theological positions within Reformed theology — extreme Calvinism and moderate Calvinsim. In the extreme Calvinist understanding of predestination, God operates with such unapproachable sovereignty that God’s choices are made with total disregard for the choices of people (page 47). Yet even moderate Calvinists view predestination in terms of foreknowledge — that God knows beforehand who would freely accept God’s unconditional grace (pages 185-186). However, the moderate Calvinist position cannot explain away this contradiction..

If God foresees those who will freely respond, then they have done something to catch God’s attention! And if they have done something, then grace is no longer unconditional.


This “nonresolvable” contradiction continues after centuries of debate (another future blog).  Hopefully, my view of predestination in terms of perspective will end this fruitless discussion. However, both views of predestination (i.e. within both extreme Calvinism and moderate Calvinism) fail to explain why God should NOT be charge with spiritual rape!

Yet even after centuries of debate, no one seems to write about spiritual intimacy as a problem for those holding to either view of predestination — extreme or even moderate Calvinism. We should expect some discussion from theologians when they address issues of God’s immanence. However, linkage between predestination and spiritual intimacy appears nowhere in the literature. Perhaps this blog will get this needed discussion started! If I have missed any of these issues in the literature, then I apologize for my lack of thoroughness.  Please draw my attention to all relevant sources.

If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they’re yours; if they don’t they never were (source).

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Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once

What if only the present exists? No past! No future! Only the present!

Sounds like science fiction stuff – the kind found in the Star Trek. Fifty-three occurrences of time travel exist in the Star Trek universe: 5 episodes dealing with time travel from “The Original Series,” 12 in “The Next Generation,” 11 from “Deep Space Nine,” 12 in “Voyager,” 9 from “Enterprise,” and 4 movies involved time travel in all of the Star Trek movies.

The first “time travel” tale to ever appear on television was in 1959 on The Twilight Zone.  Since then television brought us Quantum Leap (1989-93) and Voyagers! (1982-83). And scores of movies found their central theme in time travel, like:

  • Back to the Future, Back to the Future, Part II and Back to the Future, Part III (Years: 1985; 1989; 1990)
  • The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Years: 1984; 1991)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003)
  • Groundhog Day (1993)

Perhaps the British TV program series, Doctor Who, best illustrates humanity’s quest to travel time with the ease of sailing a ship or driving a car. The Doctor belongs to an extraterrestrial civilization called the Time Lords who produce the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space). A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants anywhere in time and space.

In “The Snowmen” (aired on the BBC, December 26, 2013), the Doctor is forced out of hiding to investigate some mysterious, sentient snowmen that are building themselves. He meets Clara Oswald, a governess, also investigating the snowmen. In this video clip, they ascend a staircase to the sky to return to the TARDIS. When the Doctor and Clara enter the “Police Box,” the interior stuns Clara into silence because the interior of the TARDIS is much larger than its exterior. The Doctor informs her that he can transport its occupants to any point in time and space.

Issues of time travel captured my imagination ever since I read a children’s version of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (late at night under the covers of my bed so my parents would think I was asleep). And for the past 30+ years I have entertained the idea that “time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.” Never mind where I stumbled across this concept – OK, I read it on the wall of a bathroom stall in Walter Library at the University of Minnesota.

If time sequences events, then removing time would cause all events to occur simultaneously within some kind of “eternal present.” Imagine a football game without a clock – all 133 plays from scrimmage would happen as one play. Our minds cannot begin to separate the chaos. We need the perspective of eternity in order to enjoy the 3 hours and 10 minutes of an average NFL football game broadcast — in just one second.

So, What would this “eternal present” look like? Imagine the deaths of the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther and my father within this “eternal present.” The Apostle Paul died about 68 AD, Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546 in Eisleben, Germany, and my father died on September 16, 2008 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Without time to provide sequencing of events, they entered eternity simultaneously. In fact, from the vantage point of eternity, each of them died at the exact same moment.

How would this “eternal present” impact our reading of the Bible? How would our concept of God change? Would conflicting issues surrounding predestination vs. free will disappear completely?

We must begin with God’s self-disclosure to Moses at the burning bush.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14 NIV).

God’s name is “I AM” (or in Hebrew, Yahweh or YHWH). Thus, God does not dwell in the “eternal present;” God is “Eternal Present.” As the “Eternal Present,” does God see all of human history as a kind of NFL football game that is broadcast in its entirety – all 3 hours and 10 minutes – within the time span of a nanosecond or less?

Ok, now we must enter the world of philosophy and talk about cosmology!

Dr Who -- TardisCosmology is the study of the universe, especially the origin, growth and overall structure of the universe. Because cosmology refers to this understanding of the universe, it often describes the worldview of a group of people at a particular time. Awareness of their cosmology provides a critical tool for the interpretation of their speech or literature.

Somehow we must synthesize physics and theology in our cosmology.  Einstein once said, “For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” And, many more blogs are required to mine this idea of time! However, at this point, I start with the greatest miracle of all – creation.

In creation, God allowed finiteness to coexist with God’s infiniteness. Every speculation about the beginnings of the universe stumble over this miracle. Whether or not we call this “Separation” the Big Bang (or parallel universes existing before the Big Bang) misses the critical reality that God allowed a material universe to exist within God’s own infiniteness.

God & universe

Carrying the analogy of the football game forward, within the universe we observe the game played out in 3 hours and 10 minutes while God sees the same game played out in the “eternal present.” Thus, God “knows” the next play and the final score because, in the “eternal present,” events have no sequence. Past and future do not exist in the “eternal present.”

Foreknowledge is the norm. In fact, foreknowledge does not exist in the “eternal present” because “foreknowledge” assumes future. Predestination also becomes irrelevant when all of human history occurs in the “eternal present.” Issues of conflict between predestination vs. free will disappear when we adopt this cosmology.

From the perspective of the “eternal present,” my next blog is being posted as you read this.

Posted in Cosmology, Free Will, Predestination | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Filters and the Big Picture View of Scripture (Part 1)

The Bible can be such a confusing book!

Just consider how much David valued the Law of Moses:

Oh, how I love your law!  I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me.
I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.

(Psalm 119:97-102 NIV).

Jesus also valued the Law of Moses and insisted that his followers must obey the Law of Moses and teach others to obey it:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 NIV).

However, in the same Bible, the Apostle Paul sharply rebuked those followers of Jesus who valued the Law of Moses.  To Paul, the Law of Moses was “a different gospel” from what he taught these followers of Jesus during his first journey to the Roman province of Galatia:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-9 NIV).

The Apostle Paul taught followers of Jesus that they were not “obligated to obey the whole law” and if they tried to obey the law, then they were no longer following Jesus:

IMG_7575small“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:2-6 NIV).

So, David taught us to value the Law of Moses.

Jesus taught us to value the Law of Moses.

But the Apostle Paul taught us to avoid the Law of Moses!

Wow!  The Bible can be such a confusing book!

May I introduce another filter that clarifies this confusion for me?  I call this filter the “stages of life” filter.  For this filter to work, imagine all of biblical history as an infant growing and maturing through four “stages of life” into adulthood:

Infant/Toddler         =          Garden of Eden/Patriarchs

Elementary age        =          Israel under the Law of Moses

Adolescent                =          Church age

Adult                          =          Millennium

The Infant/Toddler “stage of life”

My daughter has grown into a beautiful wife and mother with two children in the elementary grades.  When she was a small child – still crawling, but not standing – my wife and I placed potted plants here and there around the floor of our home.  We intended to teach the “look, but don’t touch” lesson.  If our beautiful, innocent daughter grabbed a leaf, then we would lightly tap her “offending” hand.  Great sadness would follow with enough tears to fill a tea cup.  We would hold her close and all would be well.  This routine became a ritual.

Then THAT day come.  THAT day?  Yes, THAT day!!

The day when my beautiful, innocent daughter crawled on her hands and knees to the big plant on the dining room floor.  She stopped next to the plant and sat up.  Next, my beautiful, innocent daughter placed her fingers around a leaf and made eye contact with me.  Then, she grabbed the leaf!!

JJ grabs leafI was stunned beyond action because I had just witnessed original sin.  Original sin was something that I had read about in seminary.  We discussed original sin in class.  But on THAT day I saw “Garden of Eden” stuff.  My beautiful, innocent daughter had just challenged her loving authority figure.  Wow!

From THAT day forward, I entertained the idea that Adam and Eve acted very much like my beautiful, innocent daughter.  Clear boundaries had been carefully communicated by a loving authority figure.  Nonetheless, Adam and Eve (or more accurately, Eve and Adam) chose to disregard God’s clearly defined boundary when they ate fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Likewise, my beautiful, innocent daughter chose to disregard my clearly defined boundary when she grabbed that leaf.

Elementary age “stage of life”

Years later I used the book, Assertive Discipline by Lee and Marlene Canter, as a textbook for a course in Christian education that I taught at North Central University.  The Canters advocated a “classroom discipline plan” that consisted of three parts:

  1. Rules that students must follow at all times.
  2. Supportive feedback students will constantly receive for following the rules.
  3. Corrective actions the teacher will use consistently when students choose not to follow the rules.

This “classroom discipline plan” strongly reminded me of the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy chapter 28!!  In this chapter, Moses used the “80/20 rule” to warn God’s people about the consequences for both following the rules and disregarding the rules:

Blessings = 374 words or 20.5% of Deuteronomy 28:1-14 (NIV).

Curses = 1454 words or 79.5% of Deuteronomy 28:15-68 (NIV).

Moses promised supportive feedback (blessings) the ancient Hebrews will constantly receive for following the rules.  And Moses spoke of corrective actions (curses) God will use consistently when the ancient Hebrews choose not to follow the rules.  Did Moses allocate too much emphasis on “corrective actions” for not following the rules?  Even the most casual reading from Exodus 14 to the end of Malachi proves that Moses made the right call – putting 80% emphasis on the curses for disobedience.

As I taught about classroom management in this Christian education course at North Central, I noticed another theme about elementary children and rules.  In a video entitled, “Catch ’Em Being Good,” Dr. Robert F. Biggers said, “Kids love rules!”  Even though his observation has been echoed many times, popular thought would say that kids HATE rules.

“Kids hate rules.  At least, that’s what they say.  But deep down, kids love rules.  They craveIMG_7573 the security created by reasonable rules that are consistently maintained.  Those kinds of rules show them what to expect from others and how to behave themselves.  No matter how often kids say they hate rules, their church (or their classroom, or their family) experience will feel safer and be more fun if the rules are clearly stated and enforced.” From Every Child Welcome: A Ministry Handbook for Including Kids with Special Needs by Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015), page 58.

Why would children want to live in a world populated by rules?  Rules provide an atmosphere of orderliness, structure and safety.  Values and morality flow out from rules.  Children need rules so that they become ready for the adult world.

However, in a word of caution, Dr. Robert Biggers also taught that “rules without relationships breed rebellion.”   Rules stop disruption in the elementary classroom. But do rules contribute toward change in behavior?  Rules can bring about change in unruly students when positive reinforcement comes from a caring teacher.  However, any attempt at behavior modification without this positive relationship cultivates cynicism.  Therefore, the rule is not the change agent, but the caring teacher is.  The rule simply provides the teacher with an opportunity to act redemptively.

And this fits the spirit of David when he sings,

“Oh, how I love your law!  I meditate on it all day long.”

Because of his close relationship with the God of Israel, David “bought into” the law completely – understanding the need for and the value of the Law of Moses.  And when he transgressed the law through his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, David wrote this song:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge                          (Psalm 51:1-4 NIV).

For David, the seventh of the Ten Commandments was not the change agent, but the “Caring Teacher” was.  The seventh Commandment simply provided the “Teacher” with an opportunity to act redemptively.

When I read much of the Old Testament, especially Leviticus and Psalm 119, I read the text with this elementary age “stage of life” filter.  I identify with the Old Testament saints as though I remember my own years of life as a child in first grade.  And so I read in Leviticus 19 that I must not defraud my neighbor or rob my neighbor (vs. 13).  Right!  Good rule to live by!  Then I read in the same chapter that I must not cut the hair at the sides of my head or clip off the edges of my beard (vs. 27).  Hmmm.  Feels like I outgrew the need for that rule.

The Adolescent “stage of life”

The adolescent stage of life manifests the hunger for freedom — especially freedom from rules that no longer work.  Yet because the adolescent stage of life also reveals the immaturity and the irresponsibility inherent in childhood, the need for some rules still persists!  Thus, the push and pull of rules seems to dominate the adolescent stage of life.

And this sounds very similar to what the church has experienced since the death and resurrection of Jesus — freedom from rules that no longer work, yet the need for rules when we act irresponsibly.

In his book Get Out of My Life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), Anthony Wolf wrote about two main forces of the adolescent years: the onset of sexuality and the need to turn away from childhood and parents (page 26).

Zits 2015-01-31

“All kinds of changes, physical and intellectual, mark adolescence. But the hallmark of adolescence — the transformation that defines this period of life — is a psychological change. It is the adolescent mandate. A new and powerful voice rises inside of children. They must obey this voice and, in doing so, their lives change forever.

“Simply put, the mandate tells the adolescent to turn away from childhood and childish feelings. Since childhood is marked by the domination by parents, it follows that adolescents must turn away from their parents” (Wolf, pages 14-16).

This turning away from parents causes the adolescent to reexamine the underlying assumptions that worked during childhood, including the relevance of certain rules.  In third grade, bedtime for me was about 8 PM (However, I would read books under my covers with a lamp much later than 8 PM!).  Just a few years later, in high school, I would finish with football practice and then jump on the farm tractor to work a field until almost midnight!  Were my parents inconsistent — that they would change a rule about bedtime?  Or did I just grow up and outgrow the need for that rule?

On the other hand, I needed some guidance and some rules during my high school years.  And so date night included a curfew.  “Parental authority to construct and enforce rules that govern adolescent activities may not in of itself be viewed by adolescents as an unjust imposition they must resist” (Authoritative Parenting ed. by Robert Larzelere, Amanda Morris and Amanda Harrist, Washington, D. D.: American Psychological Association, 2013, page 148).  With freedom comes responsibility, but maybe a few rules would help.

All of this sounds very similar to what we read in Paul’s epistles.

After “abiding” by the Law of Moses for centuries, it became increasingly obvious to the early church that the law contained no power to change people.  This is why the Apostle Paul wrote about a righteousness apart from the Law:

“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28 NIV).

“Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11 NIV).

How did the early church and Paul the Apostle come to view the Law of Moses in this manner?  And,

What gave them the authority to dismiss clear Old Testament revelation that was reinforced by Jesus?

Within two years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Stephen was sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin for advocating freedom from the Law of Moses.  But before the death of Stephen, Luke Stoning of Stephenclearly recorded that followers of Jesus hotly debated the future of Mosaic Law in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-9).  The logic behind this debate centered around the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.  These followers of Jesus were asking the right question, “What does this mean for us now?”  In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus explained to his disciples how the “Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:45-46 NIV).

Wait a minute!  Wait just a minute!!!!  Can you hear these disciples (and Stephen) talking about the implications of these things?  They were saying something like this, “Repentance and forgiveness had been offered through the sacrificial system as detailed by the Law of Moses.  But now, through Jesus, we have repentance and forgiveness of sins.  What becomes of the Law of Moses?  And Why do we need the temple, if the entire sacrificial system is now obsolete?”

Those debating with Stephen in Acts chapter 6 accused him of speaking against the temple and against the Law of Moses!  “For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:14 NIV).  And it was Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul the Apostle) who was probably in charge of Stephen’s execution by stoning (Acts 7:57 to 8:1).  These two passages convince me

  • that Stephen and Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) debated each other in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Tarsus was a city in the province of Cilicia),
  • that Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle) could not stand up against Stephen’s wisdom or against the Spirit by which Stephen spoke (Acts 6:10 NIV),
  • that on the road to Damascus all of this came crashing into Saul’s (Paul’s) mind (Acts 9:5),
  • that Saul (Paul) immediately understood the implications of his debates with Stephen so that within days of his conversion “he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20 NIV), and
  • that this is Paul’s gospel (Romans 2:16 and 16:25 and II Timothy 2:8).

IMG_7574aAlmost half of the New Testament is devoted to Paul’s gospel — that the temple is no longer necessary for our salvation and that the Law of Moses is no longer binding on followers of Jesus!  (Click here for the details)

In Part 2 of “Filters and the Big Picture View of Scripture” I hope to continue with Paul’s gospel and show how my “stages of life” filter helps me understand Paul’s gospel in light of the Old Testament.  And then I intend to conclude with the “adult stage of life” and why this stage reminds me of the Millennium.

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Predestination is only a matter of perspective

When reading the Bible, I would rather take everything at face value.  But this is the immature, lazy way out.  Reading Scripture literally requires no adult-level thinking.  Instead, for me this means reading and studying the Bible with a “special filter” that I have constructed after years of trying to make sense of the biblical text.

When I approach passages of scripture that deal with the issues of predestination or free will, I read them through the filter of perspective (click here to read what Calvin wrote about his own filter).  Perspective implies seeing the same thing differently when standing in two different locations.  When I stand outside a baseball stadium, what do I see?  Then, what do I see when I stand on home plate?  The same building looks different to me depending on where I am standing.

And so it is with issues of predestination and free will.  Think of two signs posted on each side of the same door.  On the outside, the sign reads, “Whosoever will … Come on In!!!” This is the Arminian perspective. But on the inside the other sign reads, “Predestined from the foundation of the world.”  This is the Calvinist perspective.

Perspective Door - GIF

On the outside lives all humanity while the Kingdom of God resides inside — on the other side of the door.  We all see the great invitation (Isaiah 55:1-2 and 2 Peter 3:9) on the outside of the door, but once we accept God’s offer and walk through the doorway, we look back and realize how every detail of our lives worked together to bring us through that doorway.  We become overwhelmed by all these “coincidences” and exclaim how God arranged all of this (John 15:16).  How else can these “coincidences” be explained?

Perhaps the clearest example of using perspective as a filter occurs when I read the following incident that happens just before the Israelites cross the Red Sea:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this.

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, IMG_7591smallPharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon (Exodus 14:1-9 NIV).

Because I employ my perspective filter when studying this text, I am able to entertain two “opposing” interpretations – one Arminian and one Calvinistic.  The Arminian perspective understands Pharaoh’s actions as decisions of his own choosing:

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them (Exodus 14:5-7 NIV).

While the Calvinist perspective clearly reveals God’s involvement in all of this:

The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly (Exodus 14:8 NIV).

If I approach Exodus 14:1-9 with only the Arminian perspective, then I filter out how God really did harden the heart of Pharaoh (verse 8).  However, if I approach this text with only the Calvinist perspective, then I filter out how Pharaoh really did choose to pursue the Hebrews when they left Egypt under the leadership of Moses (verses 5-7).  It really was his choice!

Some biblical commentaries avoid this theological tension by explaining the Hebrew words translated “harden” and their use throughout the Exodus plagues narratives (see Exodus 4:21; 7:3, 13 & 22; 8:15, 19 & 32; 9:7, 12, 34-35; 10:20 & 27; 11:10; and 14:1-9).  However, most commentary writers gloss over issues of predestination and free will when discussing Exodus 14:1-9 (click here for a discussion of commentaries consulted).  By allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, they start with God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (the Calvinist perspective) and 2013-07-30 37smallthen filter out how Pharaoh chose his own course of action (the Arminian perspective).  How is this different from describing a baseball stadium without ever standing on home plate?  Why describe a baseball stadium only from the outside (the Arminian perspective)?  Or describe it only from home plate (the Calvinist perspective)?  Don’t both perspectives provide the most complete picture?

This kind of “either/or” mentality results in a theological paradox or an impasse.  Note this concluding “dead end” statement from a biblical commentary on Exodus 14:1-9!

Did Pharaoh have no choice in his action, since “God hardened his heart”? If that was the case, how could he be punished for what he could not control? We can more easily understand the phrase “Pharaoh hardened his heart” — he refused to release the Israelites; that was a willful decision.  But how do we reconcile all those different expressions? The only satisfactory answer, I think, is in the biblical paradox of the sovereignty of God set against the freedom of man (Dunnam, page 81).

Too often, theologians produce distorted results when they approached Scripture with this “either/or” mentality.  Calvin taught double-predestination, that some people are predestined to salvation and eternal life while the rest of humanity is predestined to hell and eternal death (click here to read from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion).  To Calvin, free will is an illusion (click here to read Calvin’s understanding of free will).  This is where Calvinists miss it and their theological system becomes distorted.

But Calvinists are not alone with their distorted results.  Arminians have taught that growing in Christ requires a lot of effort, often employing spiritual exercises or spiritual disciplines such as:

  • prayer,
  • Bible study,
  • Scripture memorization,
  • fasting,
  • more prayer,
  • church attendance with personal involvement in worship and hearing the Word of God as preached in a sermon,
  • evangelism – introducing to Christ relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others in one’s sphere of influence,
  • stewardship of one’s resources,
  • still more prayer,
  • fellowship with other believers,
  • accountability of one’s inner life,
  • helping the poor and fighting injustice,
  • meditation,
  • journaling,
  • service to the church and world,
  • visiting the sick or those in prison,
  • and more!

For much of my life I believed prayerlessness resulted in powerlessness.  When I prayed for people to be healed, nothing seemed to happen.  And I would tell myself, “If I just spent more time in God’s presence and grow in Christlikeness, then my prayers would be answered.”  After all, James wrote,

“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:16-17 NIV).

Even though Paul wrote about healing as one of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit, (1 Corinthians 12:9 & 11 NIV), I positioned myself to “receive” that gift – as though I were playing a video game and accumulating more “prayer pellets” would grant me access to the next level of spiritual power.  And so I needed to do more if healing would ever come from my prayers.  This is where Arminians miss it and their theological system becomes distorted.

IMG_7569smallReading the Bible with a filter of perspective enables me to understand the reality of two “opposite” truths that do no harm to each other – instead, providing the complete picture.  I understand how Judas Iscariot might betray Jesus after feeling constant frustration with his ministry, eventually allowing Satan to enter his heart.  Yet God foreknew all of this without manipulating Mr. Iscariot’s time line.  Approaching the betrayal of Jesus by Judas with an “either/or” filter leads to a theological dead end.  My filter of perspective employs a “both/and” mentality so that, yes, Judas chose to betray Jesus.  Yes, it was his decision; he owned that action.  And yes, God predestined Judas to betray Jesus.

Although theological literature does not describe issues of free will and predestination in terms of perspective, I am not the first person to try  (click here for example).

Obviously, this topic requires much more development – many more blogs.  Complex issues contain loose ends.  For a list of these “complex issues” please see my blog, “Predestination and Free Will” (posted August 18, 2015) or just click the “Predestination vs. Free Will” button at the top of this page.  In my next few blogs, I hope…

  • to show when a verse of Scripture (or a teaching from the pulpit, or a popular book about the Christian life) comes to us from a Calvinist perspective, or from an Arminian perspective,
  • to write more about moving from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking, and
  • to discuss some other “filters” that I use to make sense of the Bible.
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Predestination and Free Will

An episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation captured the tension between two key theological concepts: predestination and free will.  In “The Perfect Mate” (aired April STAR TREK - Perfect Mate 0127, 1992), Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the starship Enterprise must transport Kamala (Famke Janssen) to her future husband.  However, Kamala possessed abilities that made her unique among women.  She is an “empathic metamorph,” which means that she is capable of sensing what a man wants in a woman and becomes that woman for him.  From birth, she prepared to bond with her future husband in hopes to stop a war.

The Apostle Paul experienced a similar sense of destiny from birth.  To the churches in Galatia he wrote, “God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles …“ (Galatians 1:15-16a).  The Apostle Paul viewed the direction of his life as being predetermined by God.

Like the Apostle Paul, Kamala fully accepted her role that was given to her before she was born.  However, Captain Picard found it difficult to accept that people can live only to be what someone else wants them to be.  And this is the tension between free will and predestination.

How do we feel about God deciding the outcome of the lives of people BEFORE they are born?

“The Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus…” (Acts 1:16-26 NIV).

OR, How do we feel about God FORCING people to act in a predetermined way?

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’  Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:17-18 NIV).

Many theologians have wrestled with issues dealing with predestination and free will, especially Saint Augustine, John Calvin and Karl Barth.

John Calvin (1509-1564) and his pupil Theodore Beza (1519-1605) believed that God unconditionally elects some for salvation.  Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) was a Dutch IMG_7570smallpastor and a student of Beza, but eventually rejected this theology and taught that people possess free will.  Thus began the debate between followers of Calvin and followers of Arminius so that their systems of theology are now called Calvinism, with its emphasis on predestination and Arminianism, with its emphasis on free will.

The following factors must be considered in the debate between predestination and free will.  However, they are currently absent from this debate:

  • Predestination is only a matter of perspective

Issues of predestination vs. free will exist only as matters of perspective.  After faith in Christ, the believer looks back to see God at work in every detail of life.

  • Predestination and cosmology

However, there is reality behind this perspective – that predestination is only a matter of perspective.  And this reality finds its focus in creation.

  • How can the Infinite be communicated to the finite?

Now things get really messy!  Because … Scripture claims to speak for God.  It is as though mosquitoes claim to speak for you and me.

Philosophical theologians speak of this as the “epistemological problem of language about God.”  So, what do I have to offer that is “new?”  I propose extending the idea of anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language into “anthropopoiism” — the realm of God’s actions and God’s words described in terms of human actions and human words.

  • Making vows — in the Old Testament and today

In the Old Testament, Hebrews (like everyone else in the ancient world) sought to make a deal with God (Numbers 15:1-5; Psalm 66:13-14).  And apparently Jesus endorsed this IMG_7570oneseatsmallmindset during his Sermon on the Mount when he taught us to ask, seek and knock.

However, a “Calvinist” approach teaches that God will lead us to pray according to God’s will.  The “Arminian” approach teaches that God honors our free will in prayer.  When Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” he really meant it.

  • Understanding the “language of faith” vs. the “reality of life”

Scripture often makes a certain promise or pronouncement an absolute certainty (the “language of faith”) while also recording how these same promises or pronouncements are not an absolute certainty (the “reality of life”).  Without an understanding of this dynamic, we will misunderstand the language of Scripture when it speaks of those predestined by God for activity within God’s scheme of history.

  • Replace “Either/Or” thinking with “Both/And” thinking

Instead of forcing Scripture to fit into a system of interpretation, we must examine the whole of Scripture and then create a system of interpretation that fits all of Scripture.  Thus, we must stop thinking in terms of either Calvinism or Arminianism, and instead consider a system of interpretation that considers both Calvinism and Arminianism.

  • Predestination and “Being led by the Spirit”

What is the difference between “being led by the Spirit” and being predestined for a task?

  • The Promises of God and Predestination

God’s promises are conditional for God’s people (see especially Deuteronomy 28).  So, What is the point of “promising” blessings based on obedience if God knows the future actions of all people?

  • Issues of Spiritual Intimacy and Free Will, or How Personal is a “Personal God?”

Is spiritual intimacy possible if we are predestinated?  Without free will any intimacy with God becomes forced – the ultimate in spiritual rape.


In future blogs (James 4:13-15), I intend to develop each of these nine factors that have been absent in the debate between predestination and free will.  If I have missed any of these issues in the literature, then I apologize for my lack of thoroughness.  Please draw my attention to all relevant sources.  Thank you!

Posted in Arminianism, Calvinism, Free Will, Predestination | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Where To Begin

Playgrounds exist for children.

At the playground children swing, climb and run. Their muscles grow and their social skills develop amid laughter and tears, victories and scars, and make-believe adventures or extended games of tag. The climbing wall invites the strong and the timid with that eternal challenge, “Do you have what it takes to conquer me?” The swing waits patiently to send each child into the clouds. The sandlot hopes children will create and build and paint with sand. The playground is a safe place for imaginations to soar, stretch, and even struggle.

My Theological Playground exists for theological children like me.

God has graciously given me four years of service in a church as youth pastor and minister of Christian Education, twenty one years of service in a Bible college as a librarian and as a member of the faculty teaching Christian Education and Bible courses, ten years of service in the retail sector, and now almost four years of service as a theological librarian. During these adult years my understanding of God’s Word continues to soar, stretch, and even struggle. I need space to express and test my ideas in a safe place.

2015-04-04 Playground - swings -small

For example,

What do we do with predestination? The Calvinist vs. Arminian debate has gotten us nowhere. Will my thoughts help change the direction of this theological quagmire?

And what about the violent God of the Old Testament vs the merciful God of the New Testament? God commanded holocaust against the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (see Deuteronomy 20, especially verses 16-18). Yet both Jesus and Paul taught us not to resist an evil person (see Matthew 5:38-42 and Romans 12:17-21).

And what about creation vs. evolution? Conservative Christians hold themselves hostage to a literal understanding of Genesis when, obviously, the creation narratives provide answers for pre-scientific cultures.

And what about the “soon” return of Jesus?

And what about the homosexual agenda that has swept Western civilization?

And what about the cultural wars among major religions?

This stuff keeps me awake at night. My vain imagination produces solution after solution, but it’s all stored away in my head – the place where fantasy and reality collide – and I need your help in sorting out these ideas. Or maybe it’s my pride requiring an audience – you. Or maybe the Holy Spirit is guiding me to articulate new paths of theological pursuit. I don’t know. But here is my reality:

As a librarian, I catalog the mclimbing wall - smallost recently published theological books. Something inside of me screams that I must read the next book – NOW!  But as I skim the contents of the next book, my thoughts explode “because” I have the answer lacking in this particular book.

I apologize for my arrogance! But this is why I need a theological playground.

Wanna play with me?

Tag! UR it

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