Thursday, January 14, 2010

Proclaiming The Gospel

Quite a bit has been written, pro and con, about Brit Hume’s public recommendation to Tiger Woods that he take advantage of the forgiveness and redemption available through faith in Jesus Christ as a route to starting over. Some have objected to his use of the airwaves to make such a personal statement, to the advice itself, or to the implication that any one religious faith has an advantage over others. Mr. Hume is not backing off or apologizing. Some say the uproar and objections are not fair because people often get away with publicly mocking Christianity while freely advocating or openly respecting other faiths while Christians sometimes cannot talk freely in public about their faith without being criticized or ridiculed.

Of course the United States was founded on religious freedom as one of its pillars, but the focus was on freedom of the various Christian groups from being dominated by whatever Christian group was in the majority and might possibly be established as an official state religion. Such freedom was not a sure thing. Before the English took over in 1664 and adopted a policy of toleration of other churches, the Dutch Reformed majority along the Hudson River prohibited Lutherans from bringing ordained pastors from the Netherlands to the new country and from free practice of their religion. We have Roger Williams, libertarian in spirit, to thank for founding Providence, the first colony based on the principle of religious freedom, in the mid 1600’s. It had nothing to do with Islam or mysterious Indian or Eastern religions. Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, and Baptists had all fought and died and killed and suffered persecution in an environment not too different from that in the Middle East today, and many coming to the new world wanted to be free of that and free to worship as they pleased without any laws establishing one faith over another. They wanted to be free to worship, not free from worship.

So, with fundamentalist radical Islam having no interest at all in separation of Church and State, we have to leave them out of this discussion. But among the other faiths, perhaps the reason Christianity is singled out for restraint and abuse and disgust is because, for Christianity, the final bottom line is not, “Well, whatever.” Christianity makes claims of truth that cannot be denied if one is to remain true to the faith.

Maybe this problem is aggravated by the fact that we Christians sometimes present the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a threat or as a self improvement program of some kind. “Believe in Jesus or you are going to Hell!” Or perhaps, “Believe in Jesus Christ and you will be healthy and wealthy and wise the rest of your days.” Well aside from the fact that believing in Jesus with the very selfish intent of avoiding Hell seems to be an un-Christian thing to do, it does not represent a true and full presentation of the Gospel. Nor does the Gospel promise a life of prosperity and good health and happiness. It seems to me that the true presentation of the Christian Gospel, or good news, is that Jesus is God among us, come to show His love for us and to show us the way to have abundant life now. And there is no promise that the descriptor “abundant” rules out suffering and sacrifice. I don’t believe Jesus came saying, “Man, these people are going to Hell if I don’t do something,” or “These folks are poor. We need to show them how to make some money.” I prefer to think he came saying that, rich or poor, we are living selfish lives, wrapped up in meaningless selfish activities and worrying about ourselves primarily and mistreating each other and always trying to pile up wealth and accumulate more toys and looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places and wrong ways etc.

I believe he came saying, “I will show them what I intended life to be. I will show them that if they want to be first, they have to be last and be a servant to all. I will show them that they serve me by serving the least among them. I will show them what it means to have abundant life.”

If we Christians show a little evidence that we have heard that message and realize our shortcomings and are asking forgiveness for them, we will have a much warmer reception from hearers of The Gospel than we will ever get with a self righteous “I found it!” approach. ("I Found It" was the poorly chosen name, in my opinion, of an interdenominational Christian evangelistic campaign in the 1970's.)  Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus should not include the pronoun “I” except one time followed by the verb “believe.”

After all, that is the pattern established by the original proclaimers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who wrote in the third person about what Jesus said and did and not in the first person about what it meant to them. The only first person quote I found in a quick search of those Gospels was this: Luke 1:3-4 "I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed." So, we 21st century believers should investigate carefully as well so that we can give orderly accounts of the Gospel. I personally have done a good bit of the investigating but am woefully short in the giving of orderly accounts and will be found standing in line asking forgiveness for not having faithfully done so.

Here are links to what some have written sympathetically about Mr. Hume’s statement. 

Ross Douthat

Bill O’Reilly

Matt Barber

Brent Bozell

Michael Gerson

Tim Graham

Monday, January 4, 2010

Church Statements on Homosexual Behavior

Many Christians are upset over endorsement of homosexual behavior in some Churches. Some of us argue that the problem is that endorsement is a positive judgment that goes beyond (violates) Jesus’ warning against judging, but I suspect it is often just a case of seeing specks in the eyes of neighbors while ignoring the logs in our own eyes. (Matthew 7:1-3)

In the summer of 2009 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, voted to allow ordination of practicing homosexuals in monogamous relationships and to allow the blessing of such unions. Some see that decision as indecisive since it does not endorse but allows endorsing. Whatever one’s positions on these issues, it is difficult to deny that many churches and church people have, with an unjustified attitude of self righteousness, brought focus and pressure on homosexual behavior, and sometimes even on homosexuality itself, while paying scant attention to explicit teachings of Jesus himself who said nothing at all about either.

For example, Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, follow His commandments, feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, eat His Body and Blood, follow the two greatest commandments (love God and neighbor), follow the Great Commission (go, make disciples, baptize, and teach), be last of all and be a servant to all. He tells us not to cast stones unless we are without sin, to avoid anger and swearing and to trust in our Heavenly Father and not worry about tomorrow. He teaches us to avoid adultery and lust and divorce and greed. He even tells us we have to die to ourselves and give up everything to follow him and that it is not going to be easy.

Well, when is the last time the Church came down hard on somebody for being greedy or selfish or for getting caught up in adultery or for failing to show up for Holy Communion or for never telling anyone about Jesus or for criticizing and judging others or for not dying to themselves and giving up everything for Jesus.

In Matthew, Jesus tells us that we are made unclean by evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander but doesn’t seem to say that any one of these is any worse than the others and says nothing specifically about homosexual behavior.

And it’s not just Jesus. We find in Leviticus that anyone who curses his mother or father or commits adultery is to be put to death, exactly the same punishment some like to point out was prescribed for two men who lie together. Exodus 35:2 tells us that anybody who does any work on the Sabbath must be put to death! In the past century or so the Church has not been too tough on cursing of parents, working on the Sabbath, or even committing adultery. In spite of the fact that we don’t normally take these prohibitions in Leviticus very seriously, parts of the church have tended to get very stirred up and begin quoting Leviticus in cases involving two men found lying together.

In the first chapter of Romans, St. Paul gives a little overview of human history with a pretty impressive list of sins including failure to glorify God and give thanks to him, sexual impurity, worship of created things rather than the Creator, shameful homosexual lusts, wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, disobedience of parents, faithlessness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness. Why do we read this and just see the phrase, “shameful homosexual lusts?” Paul didn’t rank these sins but wrote that everybody knows that all who do such things deserve death but they just keep on doing them and approving of others doing them. Has anything changed?

So, to those of us who would rather not see the churches adopting more liberal stances on homosexual behavior, or anything else for that matter, because we think the job of the Church is forgiveness more than granting of permission, it shouldn’t be difficult to see why homosexual Christians might feel justified in saying, “Hey, we know you think we are wrong, but how about cutting us a little slack. You’ve been cutting yourselves and everybody else but us plenty of slack for centuries.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Not To Worry

In the volunteer work I do with Home Works of America, we involve teens and adults in the repair of homes for low-income elderly homeowners. We close our repair sessions in prayer with the home owner and the volunteers together. We call it a House Blessing, and part of it is the reading of the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:25-34.


Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.


Sometimes as we read this aloud in the presence of a mix of prosperous middle class teens and adults and one or more individuals living in poverty, I think, “This is crazy.” I have that thought because the home owner is very often in a bad situation because somebody didn’t give any thought to tomorrow, even about something so simple as fixing a water leak that over time has rotted a bathroom floor, and that many of the volunteers are in very comfortable positions because somebody did give thought to tomorrow with respect to education and savings and investment and other worldly things or even about an other-worldly thing such as Christian education.


In one particular case I was having such thoughts when the reader got to verse 33 which begins with “but” and which seems to be the key point Jesus makes. I thought, “OK, the point is not to completely drop all thinking about and planning for the future. It is to seek God first and be sure that serves as the context for the planning. It’s a matter of priorities.” I’m not saying that is the definitive word of truth here. I’m just saying that is the thought I had.


Later at home I looked at this passage and decided that we err in starting with verse 25 because the first word is “therefore,” which is a clear signal that what follows can be understood only if we know what the “therefore” refers to. In this case, the previous verse is:


No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.


Then we get the “therefore…do not worry” followed by the “but seek first…his righteousness.” I guess Jesus’ point was that if we get our priorities right, the things we seek will be different and we will live lives of peace and joy free from worry about tomorrow. OK, all who have their priorities correctly established according to the words of Jesus, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, please stand! The rest of us can then join humbly in the closing prayer we use at the house blessing, the “Our Father,” in which we say: “Forgive us our trespasses.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Big Methodists

I like big Methodist churches. Little Methodist churches can still be a bit provincial and family or founder or “big giver” dominated or bound up in local traditions, but the big ones seem to be the humblest, most service oriented, most welcoming, and least argumentative of the better known Protestant groups still on record as “protesting” the Catholic faith. The Catholics of course claim to be the one true church and seem to me to be the only group with any reasonable basis for such a claim. The Baptists often deny protestant status and sometimes come across as also claiming to be the one true church but, as far as I can see, without any reasonable basis for such a claim.

The Lutherans trace their history back to the 16th century mass departure from Catholicism which I blame more on the Pope of the time than on Luther. Leo X should have assigned Luther to head up a task force to stamp out abusive practices, of which there were plenty, instead of kicking him out of the Church. Many Lutheran Churches have ethnic traditions since they not only departed Catholicism en mass but were often ejected from their homes and regions and emigrated to the new world en mass, leaving all their property and possessions behind. Lutherans sometimes seem to be prouder of being Lutheran than of being Christian. That’s good because pride in surviving persecution may be acceptable while pride in receiving salvation by the grace of God is certainly not. That calls only for thankfulness.

Presbyterians date from the same time as Lutherans, still have some of the predestinarian views of Calvin and Knox, and may seem a bit aloof to those not predestined to be Presbyterians. Episcopalians still suffer from their poorly motivated founding by Henry VIII as well as from recent theological splits over gay issues. Lutherans may be heading the same way after decades of mergers combining as many as sixty separate synods into today’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Episcopalians gave birth to the Methodists, and for that we can be grateful. However, at least as far as American Methodists go, formation was not the result of a rancorous split and a mass departure with associated squabbles and residual acrimony. Formation of American Methodists was almost totally positive in nature. John Wesley left the Church of England, came to America, and founded a new church for which he provided an adequate supply of ordained (falsely so according to the folks back home) English-speaking pastors. People with no church and people who were members of other churches came to the Methodist faith but not en mass over theological splits. They came because they were invited, came, liked, and stayed. Methodism in America is an American church.

Baptists stand pretty much alone among major Christian denominations in denying the Sacraments, rejecting the creeds, and insisting on “believers” baptism only. Fortunately, they are good at motivating people to get up out of their pews and take that first step of faith, sometimes more than once, and at teaching believers how to tithe and how to find their way around in the Bible. For those things, we can be thankful. Former Baptists stand out as faithful and disciplined members of many denominations.

There are some very good reasons for the formation of these various Protestant church bodies. The gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church our Lord founded, but sin has crept in from time to time necessitating reforms. However, the Catholic Church has changed over the centuries, and the question now is whether enough problems remain to justify the divisions which currently exist and which result in presentation of a very fuzzy picture of Christianity to the world outside the Christian Church. If not, we (non-Baptist) Protestants might as well repent, recant, and return to the Catholic Church and begin working together to continue its reformation and to present a more unified picture of The Body of Christ to an unbelieving world.

If serious church dividing problems do remain, then my suggestion would be that we all give up our smaller theological points of contention and join together in big Methodist churches. We need to forgive and forget if our founder was excommunicated or our ancestors were cast out of Europe. We need to forgive and forget those who followed Henry VIII and Henry VIII himself for an unbelievable display of arrogance. We need to quit talking about predestination and leave that entirely up to God because there is no point in discussing something about which, we must confess, nothing can be done. Then the Body of Christ would have just three major parts: The Catholic Church with its magisterium and tradition and its rules and regulations and frequent masses, the Methodist Church with its open doors, friendly faces, loose theology, and numerous opportunities for service and worship, and the Baptist Church struggling along without the Sacraments and creeds but doing a fine job of teaching Bible and stewardship. It would be a better world and a better witness for our Lord.

Confession and Background Information: I wrote the first draft of the above on a bulletin while sitting in the back pew of a big downtown Methodist Church December, 2008, listening to the community Messiah sing-along in which my wife was participating. I was Southern Baptist for 32 years, Presbyterian for 16 years, and now have been in Lutheran churches for 19 years. Self identification has shifted over the years from denominational to now saying simply that I am Christian and currently a member of a Lutheran Church. I can’t help wondering what the message is in the fact that the two groups I seem to favor in the essay, Catholic and Methodist, are ones with which I have little firsthand experience, but make what you will of it. I first got interested in Christian unity when we were living in Japan (1992-1995) and seeing how confusing the multiplicity of Christian groups can be to a people who are about 2% Christian. Then, after retirement, I spent three years at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary where I got my first real doses of Christian theology, Church history, contextual Bible study, and ecumenism and learned something about what separated and still separates us from each other. I trust we will eventually be united, but it may be a while.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Discussion and Assessment of New Testament Theology by G. B. Caird

This paper was written May, 2004, and was the last one I turned in before graduation from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.  Part of a course on New Testament Theology, the paper is a "discussion and assessment" of a book with the same title by New Testament scholar G. B. Caird ($85!!!) and his student, L. D. Hurst, who completed the book after Caird's death.  Bogged down in learning Hebrew that last semester, I almost missed the deadline on this paper and had to put it together in a high pressure twelve hours or so, with no multi-tasking allowed, just before graduation.  That's not the way I like to work, but, looking back at the final product, it was not so terrible an experience.  I have some problem with getting this blogging software to show the footnote references correctly so the numbers in parentheses are the page numbers referred to in the book.

If you are ready for a nap, read on...after checking out my disclaimer to the right under "Why Last of All?"

Discussion and Assessment of G. B. Caird’s
New Testament Theology
Darryl K. Williams
May 13, 2004


Introduction and Overview

This challenging work is a joint effort of the primary author and his student, L. D. Hurst, who completed the “less than half finished” (vi) work after Caird’s death. Although Hurst made significant individual contributions to the finished product, including half of Chapter 6 and all of Chapters 7-9, he followed, as much as possible, the original author’s thinking as he understood it from Caird’s lectures and papers, and from private conversations. In this paper, for convenience, I will describe all quotations and references from the work as Caird’s.

Caird expresses a clear understanding that the development of a theology based on the NT Canon is complicated by the fact that the NT writers wrote to address particular issues in particular circumstances and for particular communities. Therefore, none of the individual works can be considered to tell the whole story for all times and circumstances. They are not systematic theologies. However, Caird’s hypothesis is that all the writings can be clearly understood as bearing witness to the historical Jesus of Nazareth and to some common NT theology. The presumption seems to be that that common NT theology will not be found to be described fully by any one writer, nor will the total Canon necessarily fully describe the theology, nor will everything written by a particular writer necessarily advance an understanding of the theology. However, Caird seems to be saying, if one could get inside the minds of the writers and successfully imagine the contexts in which they wrote and then comment, with neither modernization or archaization creeping in, from the viewpoint of each on what each of the others wrote, perhaps an improved picture of that NT theology to which they all bear witness would emerge. Perhaps one would be able to discern, “not whether these books all say the same thing, but whether they all bear witness to the same Jesus and through him to the many splendoured wisdom of the one God.” (24)

Caird avoids traditional approaches to New Testament theology, arguing that, “the whole tenor of the New Testament is opposed to dogmatism…” (8), that a chronological approach ignores the canonicity of the New Testament, that a kerygmatic approach is flawed because the New Testament does not contain all that the apostolic church taught and thought, and that an author by author approach leaves undone any possible reconciliation of the various messages. What Caird proposes, to accomplish the task of getting inside the minds of the authors, is an imaginary conference of about a dozen New Testament writers, at which issues are raised, perhaps based on words of one of the writers who had a great deal to say about a particular issue, and then other participants are allowed to comment if they have anything to say on the subject. Of course all the participants do not have the same experience base or the same knowledge, and all will learn from each other. One can imagine that the responses might range from total agreement to, “I see what you mean,” or “I never thought of that.” Invitees to the conference table include the Gospel writers, Paul, the Pastor, and the authors of Hebrews, James, 1st and 2nd Peter, Jude, and Revelation. Caird assumes that the writer of John can speak for whoever wrote the Epistles of John and that Paul can speak for whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians. (18) If the writers of those later epistles were faithful students of their predecessors simply addressing new situations in the context of the same church, that assumption may be considered reasonable.

Caird’s model for the conference table approach is the first Jerusalem conference which included honest discussion of differences between Paul and the other Apostles and resulted in all being able to go on their ways, not necessarily in unanimity, but recognizing that, “…the same God was at work both in Peter’s mission to the Jews and in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.” (24) Such agreement seems to be a worthy but unreachable goal for a church as fragmented as we are in the 21st century but perhaps can be achieved incrementally.

Caird’s Center of the New Testament

An overview of Caird’s volume leads to the conclusion that, for him, the New Testament is primarily about what happened to Jesus in his death and resurrection and how that was and is a solution to the problem of our sins. This focus can be seen in the organization of the volume which begins with explanation of how the NT and the church are tied to the OT and its prophecies of someone from the nation of Israel through whom all nations will be blessed. The result of that promise which is to be fulfilled through “The Divine Plan,” is God’s “Plan of Salvation.” Then he addresses the need for and the nature of the promised salvation and climaxes with a discussion of “The Bringer of Salvation, Jesus Christ, and his theology. “Caird finds ample evidence that the Church is continuous with and not a replacement of Israel in the fact that the early Christians all regarded OT history as their history. (55) The concept that what happened to Jesus was predicted by or at least consistent with OT scripture he finds to be pervasive in the NT, and he calls this concept a “notion of fulfillment.” (27) He finds it in the writings of all the witnesses at the conference table except 2 Thessalonians, 1, 2, 3 John, and the Pastoral Epistles. That may seem to be a long list of exceptions, but it certainly represents a small portion of the NT and a portion primarily concerned with particular limited issues rather than with a general proclamation of the Gospel.

Caird identifies other consistent and unifying themes, but they can all be reconciled with a central focus on what happened to Jesus. He finds, for example, that for all the NT writers, evil is real and the solution to the problem of evil will have to come from outside, “from God Himself.” (117) Consistent with that, he finds that belief in the moral bankruptcy of the human race is prevalent. (74) He also finds that the NT is uniformly a book about God, (31) that the writers agree that God acts in history but transcends it, (126) that the Parousia was almost unanimously expected, (242) and that the writers believed that Jesus was sinless. (299) He also finds that, “The New Testament writers are uniformly positive and forward looking.” (160) With respect to present life in the faith, Caird writes that, “Through all the varieties of emphasis there runs the one dominant theme of life: rich, full, abundant, and free, a pulsating and irrepressible vitality. To be a Christian is to enter the service of the living God…” (179) One might argue that Caird is glossing over or rationalizing differences and focusing only on commonalities and consistencies in the testimonies. Given the premises of his book, that none of the witnesses know the whole story and that he is looking for the truth to which all the participants bear witness, the approach seems to be to be reasonable and defensible. So for Caird, Jesus as the “bringer of salvation,” through his death and resurrection, is both the center of the NT and a fulfillment of the OT.

Extent to Which Caird’s Center Unifies the Whole Canon of the NT

I think the question Caird would rather answer is whether any of the Canon is inconsistent with or eliminated by identification of a focus on Jesus and his death and resurrection as the center. Certainly parts of the NT do not directly address the death and resurrection of Jesus, but all or almost all the NT seems to address either the need for the death and resurrection, the promise and the process leading to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the central events themselves, or the life in the resurrected Christ that is made possible because of the fulfillment of the promises of God in those events. James, for example, hardly mentions Jesus but focuses on the life of faith and the good works which are a part of it. There seems to be no problem reconciling the writings of James with the Luke-Acts focus on the downtrodden and disadvantaged, for example.

Caird leaves out none of the Canon with the possible exception of 3 John, the only book not included in the Index of Passages Cited. He gives great weight to the Luke-Acts narrative because in it he finds the most complete theology including a description of God’s plan and its execution. In his chapter on The Divine Plan, he summarizes the Luke-Acts theology in a list of seven points which he then uses as the basis of questions to the other NT writers. (30) The choice of Luke-Acts seems reasonable since its author was the only NT writer to describe not only the prophecy, birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus but to also describe what happened with respect to the church in the few years after the resurrection. That writer also gives an outside view of Paul in which can be used in dialogue about the writings of Paul.

This particular chapter on The Divine Plan can be used as an example of this reviewer’s impression that the organization and outline of much of Caird’s excellent material seem weak, thus making his arguments difficult to follow. The list of seven points of Lukan theology is found in the first section of the chapter which is followed by seven sections which correspond roughly but not exactly to the seven points. The titles of the seven sections resemble, in some cases but not in others, the seven points. Finally, the transitions from witness to witness are bumpy, and the “questions” being asked of the other witnesses are not made explicit. Therefore, to find out exactly what Caird asks the other witnesses and what he hears them saying about one particular point may require some digging and translation that could have been avoided with improved subdivision and titling and continuity and outlining of the material. There seems to be an opportunity for significant improvement in clarity and readability by writing the questions and responses in dialogue format rather than in third person narrative style. Don’t tell me what Mark said. Let Mark speak for himself since an expectation for that was created early in the text.

In any case, Caird finds no refutation of or important inconsistencies with the seven point Lukan theology among the other NT witnesses.

How Caird Deals With Diversity in the NT

A great deal of the theological diversity in the NT has to do with the concept of time and, to a lesser extent, with location. Is the Kingdom of God here now, or is it drawing near but not yet arrived, or is it to come only at some future time? Is it on Earth or to be on Earth or is it to be only in Heaven or in both Heaven and Earth? Do we already have salvation, or are we being saved, or do we have only a hope of salvation at some future time? There is a question of whether the “last days” are just out there at the end sometime or if they have already begun and whether salvation referred to in the future tense means just at some future time or from now on. (121) These are all questions to which we want answers, but Caird seems to be arguing that there may not be any simple answers and that maybe allowing all the answers to co-exist is the better solution. Caird identifies what he calls a “three-tense structure of salvation” and concludes that there are four “irreducibly complementary and interlocking” (138) answers to the question of what Jesus has done, is doing, will do. He calls them substitution, representation, leadership, and example but insists that they are not to be considered as separate, independent, and different and subject to debate. (137) He gets full attention of the faithful reader with his statement that, “…although there are no conditions attaching to God’s free gift of salvation, there are substantial conditions attached to the reception of it and the belief in it.” (138) So, there is no need to argue about whether Jesus has substituted in some way for us in the past and that, as a result, we have salvation or whether Jesus is to be seen as an example to follow into the future. The answers are, “Yes,” and “Yes.”

For Caird, an important key to identification of the truth to which all the witnesses testify is to allow for the inherent ambiguities in the meanings of Greek words, and ambiguities of the Greek tenses. Most of the ambiguities are lost, of course, in the process of translation into English and are further handicapped by the 21st century meanings we tend to impose on the English translations.

With respect to verb tenses, for example, Caird writes, “It will not necessarily be the case that all past verbs refer to salvation as an accomplished fact and all future verbs to the final consummation…We have already seen that events still future to the believer can be referred to in the aorist tense because they are conceived as already done in the predestining act of God.” (120) Further ambiguities are introduced by the fact that surface meanings of tenses can be overruled by context, by use of the historical present, and by lack of a future perfect in Greek.

With respect to word meaning, he writes, for example, that, “It is extremely fortunate that the Greek basileia is an ambiguous term which comprehends the three possible senses: sovereignty, reign, and realm. And these three are logically so inseparable that it is no surprise to find the New Testament writers moving freely from one sense to the other, and even exploiting the ambiguity.” (129) Willingness to understand basileia in any or all of these three senses eliminates the need to pin down a time frame for the Kingdom of God and makes it possible to fit the concept of the Kingdom of God into the “three-tense structure” of salvation: that it is accomplished, is continuing, and is yet to be finally consummated. (118) The diversity issue is complicated by the fact the variances are found not only between the various writers but within the works of a single writer. Paul, for example, sometimes talks of inheriting the Kingdom of God and sometimes of living in the Kingdom of God. (130)

The tense issue is further revealed in the church’s historical tendency to associate justification, sanctification, and glorification with past, present, and future and to limit the concepts to those defined times. As a process-oriented individual, I find myself sympathetic with Caird’s criticism of this tendency and agree with Caird’s arguments that we are better served by consideration of the significance of metaphors used to describe theology, salvation, and the Kingdom of God. The processes of sowing, cultivating, and reaping, not once but year after year, (123)of continual cleansing, of being set free and then living free, of running a race, of growing to maturity, of building on a foundation, of traveling, and of producing fruit all lead toward thinking of salvation in terms of process or progress rather than of event. This progress can take place in the life of an individual believer and can also be seen in the spread of the influence of Jesus throughout the world. (122) This viewing of salvation as process and progress, both individual and universal, is consistent with and supported by Caird’s three-tense structure.

Caird’s Position on the Historical Jesus

Caird places high importance on the historical Jesus, saying that, “Without the Jesus of history the Christ of faith becomes a Docetic figure.” (347) He writes, “New Testament Christology should start from where the first disciples of Jesus started. They first knew him as a man, and whatever other staggering affirmations they may have later come to make about him, they never ceased to think of him as a man.” (280) He further argues that, “…those who believe that in the life and teaching of Jesus God has given a unique revelation of His character and purpose are committed by this belief, whether they like it or not, whether they admit it or not, to that quest (for the historical Jesus).” (347)

Caird sees difficulty in the fact that the NT message of Jesus is based on three sources: Jesus, the evangelists, and the early church. I would have included Paul in the list as well because, although he says little about the activities of the historical Jesus, his writings surely must reveal something about the message of the historical Jesus. I think Caird sees the Epistles as being the “early church” source but also may argue that the message of the evangelists is influenced by their churches. He mentions John in particular as reflecting sixty years of Christian theology in his writings. (331) The fact is that there are two historical realities of great interest to Christians today: The historical Jesus and the historical early church. Neither is described completely, and the descriptions we do have are filtered through oral tradition and through the writers of the NT and are affected by situational priorities. Still, Caird believes that an understanding of the NT based on these three sources would yield a picture of the historical Jesus which could then be used to sort out what originally came directly from Jesus. (25) For this reason, Caird planned placement of his description of the theology of Jesus at the end of his book, and it was therefore left, after Caird’s death, to be written by Hurst.

Caird’s strongest views on the historical Jesus are found in Chapter 9 on The Theology of Jesus. The process by which the church developed within a generation has generally been considered by theologians and scholars to be either a development of the work of Jesus, influenced somewhat by external forces, or an entirely new entity with very little basis in what Jesus actually said and did. Caird outlines “four errors of method,” the first of which is “to assume that the Jesus of history was a different person from the Christ of the Church’s faith,” (346) which have led to the unsatisfying latter conclusion for many theologians. For Caird, “Without the Jesus of history the Christ of faith becomes a docetic figure.” (347) Caird writes that, “…we shall not find Jesus even indirectly relevant to our age unless we first find him directly relevant to his own.” (353) He then describes what he sees as Jesus’ relevance to his own age.

Caird begins with “the one undoubted fact in the history of Jesus: He was crucified,” (353) and then builds a case that it happened for political reasons resulting from the position of Jesus that, “at least Jesus, and anyone who would share it with him, must fulfill the national destiny” for Israel to be “the agent through whom God would assert his sovereignty over the world.” (418) Caird’s case is built on his assumption that there had to be some valid reason in the historical situation of Jesus and what he did and how he was seen for him to be crucified. He argues that Jesus understood clearly the prophecies about Israel’s role and that, as a result, he should be seen as, “…intimately bound up with the politics, history, and daily affairs of the nation…” (359) So for Caird, Jesus was concerned about individuals and their relationships to their maker but also about the fulfillment of the promises of God to bless all nations through Israel.

I find Caird’s argument that Jesus’ crucifixion resulted from his political activity to rally the Israelites in support of the survival of Israel reasonable but vaguely unsettling. I can understand it as a, ‘national summons to repentance,” (360) which the authorities interpreted as a national summons to rebellion, and I suppose that is what Caird is saying. In any case, Caird finds the move the early church made from Jesus’ self perceived role as a Jew concerned about the role of Israel in God’s plan for the Gentile nations to understanding of his death as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of the whole world to be reasonable based on scripture long before it was put into writing by Paul. (408) Caird closes his chapter on the theology of Jesus with Luke 24:25-27

(How dull you are…How slow to believe all that the prophets said! Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering upon his glory? Then, starting from Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them in the whole of scripture the things that referred to himself.)
and concludes: To those who believe Luke’s testimony, no further explanation is necessary. To those who do not, no further explanation is possible.” (408) I suppose this affirms or at least strongly suggests that the church, approaching the New Testament in faith, is quite reasonably going to find different things than will be found by the skeptic approaching with an attitude of disbelief.

Usefulness of Caird’s Model for the Church

Caird closes his work with an essay on the futility of two extreme approaches to NT theology, one of which claims that development is everything and that whatever actually happened with Jesus is reduced to irrelevance and the other of which denies the existence of development with the result that “the infallibility of scripture becomes a cypher for the infallibility of the interpreter.” (424) If we cannot go to either of these extremes, we are led to the conclusion that there are no simple answers, and we are forced to dialogue. Caird’s early conclusion that, “…there is no such thing as New Testament theology,” (4) is confirmed. God really is beyond our understanding. There is a divine mystery. The “Four Spiritual Laws” and “The Roman Road” not withstanding, we cannot put God in a box and rest comfortably that we know all that we need to know. But we can make progress. We can grow and mature. We can participate in the process of salvation. And we can do that more effectively through dialogue about scripture for which Caird has given us a model in his conference table approach to theology. We can seek common ground and identify areas of agreement and disagreement. I found particularly helpful the identification of unifying themes, some of which are listed on page 5 in this paper. Hurst writes in the forward to Caird’s book that, “Caird was too fine a scholar to see a perfect harmony or agreement as the criterion of an apostolic conference. Dialogue was its essential characteristic.” (x) We may reach the same conclusion about the Church and the issues it faces today. Perfect harmony or agreement may be impossible and may not even be desirable, but reading and studying the New Testament in community is an essential element of the Christian life. Caird’s book is a rich and affirming resource for believers willing to take such an approach and deserves a place on the shelf of any serious student of the New Testament. As we move into positions of leadership and service in the church and seek to understand and interpret scripture and to proclaim the gospel, we would do well to remember some of Caird’s closing words about consistency in the New Testament message: “What Paul expressed in highly theological language is illustrated in simpler terms in the gospel story. Jesus dealt leniently and sympathetically with the outcasts and untouchables, reserving his severest strictures for the ecclesiastical authorities.” (424)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Double Predestination - Doctrine of No Consequence

Note: This is a paper I wrote April, 2002, for a course in Lutheran Confessions.  It was a fun paper to write and not too heavy on footnotes, etc.  Professor Mary Havens liked my use of alliteration.

Double Predestination: Doctrine of No Consequence

Introduction

All Christians believe that it is God who has provided our salvation, but there are divisions along two lines. The first division occurs over whether the salvation provided by God is adequate and available for all or for only the elect. The second division occurs over whether the salvation must be earned by some work or is given freely. If one assumes salvation is available to all and is given on the basis of good works, the Pelagian position, one has an easily understandable and consistent theology. It’s similar to the American free enterprise system, a system that works great for providing the material needs of society but is probably not applicable to the spiritual domain. With Pelagianism, two problems arise: It is inconsistent with much of Scripture, and there is no way to know how much good work is enough. If, however, one assumes that salvation is adequate and available only for the elect and that it is freely given by God out of His grace, the predestinarian position, different problems, to be discussed later, arise. The resulting controversy, centering on how salvation is given and received, has been one of the most divisive and enduring in the history of the Church.

There are two major understandings of predestination. The extreme double predestinarian position is that God decided before all time who is to be eternally damned and who is to be saved, that he did so without any consideration of what persons would do or believe, and that his decision is irreversible. A less extreme view teaches that, after the fall of mankind from grace, God arbitrarily elected some to eternal life but simply left the others to their own devices rather than condemn them arbitrarily. In this less extreme view, individuals, rather than God, are responsible for their own condemnations. An even less extreme view, Arminianism, says that God predestined based on His foreknowledge of those who would have faith.

For the purpose of this short paper, I would like to focus on double predestination and argue that, even if it is true, it is a doctrine of no consequence and of no benefit to the church. There are three reasons for that argument. The first is that we have clear instructions for the Church, the body of Christ, and those instructions are not affected by whether double predestination is a true doctrine. It is our job as Christians simply to be the Church and to follow the commands of Christ as the Holy Spirit enables us to do so and in gratitude for what Jesus has done for us. The second reason is that, since we cannot see into the hearts and minds of persons and do not know and cannot predict the future, we have no basis for disruptive and sinful speculation on whether or not any individual is among the elect. The third reason is that our understanding of God is a tiny part of the whole truth of God and that God’s plan may well extend even beyond the limits of time and space that are so real to us.

Why Predestination?

Predestination is consistent with the doctrines of the total depravity of mankind, the sovereignty of God, and salvation by grace alone. If all persons are totally depraved, spiritually dead, separated from God, and unable to do anything at all in response to God, the only way a person can be restored to communion with God is through action on the part of God who, solely out of grace, gives the gift of faith. God could have chosen to give that gift in real time rather than having predestined it, but Scripture clearly teaches that, “…he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…” Strong predestination theology can also be found in Romans 8:28-30.

28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
In addition, there are thirteen references in the NRSV New Testament to the “elect,” a term which seems to refer to those whom God has chosen or set apart in some way. The Ephesians passage above seems clear on God’s positive election of some, but Romans 9:18 is quoted in support of double predestination: “So then He has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever He chooses.” We also find in Scripture talk of sheep and goats , of wheat and weeds , of judgment and punishment , and of lumps of clay that can be made into either vessels of wrath or vessels of honor . The message of all these seems to be the sovereignty of God and powerlessness of mankind in salvation.

At the other extreme from predestination is the Pelagian belief that individuals do have the ability to respond to and obey God and must do so in order to restore communion with God. Their ability may be nothing more than the ability to decide whether to accept or reject the gift of eternal life which God is offering to all, but the responsibility and choice reside with the individual rather than with God. Pelagians quote John 3:16, Revelation 3:20, and many other passages, always sparking immediate rejoinders from Calvinists who explain how they are misinterpreting those passages. Two problems with the Pelagian position are that it seems to leave our sovereign God helplessly waiting to see who will listen and follow Jesus and that it seems to require a theology of works, meaning that those who do follow Jesus must be in some way better or at least smarter than those who don’t. In Arminianism, God knew who would believe but still was dependent on those individual decisions to believe. Early Arminians were accused of Pelagianism but denied it saying that even though God foreknew who would have faith, faith was still possible only by the grace of God.

Curiosity, Condemnation, and Complacency

There are three major problems associated with misuse or misunderstanding of the doctrines of both single and double predestination. The first, Curiosity, is the fact that humans cannot easily accept the concept of God choosing without wanting some information about the criteria He uses. If I am chosen, not because of my good works or because of my faith or because of my parents, or because I am American or Southern, then why am I chosen? It’s an extension of the sins of eating of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and construction of the Tower of Babel. We want to know the mind of God, and we have difficulty coming to grips with the fact that the mind of God is not understandable to humans. There is a divine mystery.

The second problem, Condemnation, arises from the human problems of hate, fear, and pride. If God has chosen some to be damned, it is the tendency of some of those who believe they have a brighter destiny to try to identify the condemned and begin their predestined mistreatment immediately. Why wait until they die? Let’s do the Lord’s work now. Let’s throw them out of the Church. Totally ignored is the fact that a person, whose life currently offers abundant evidence of being among the hopeless, may appear, in a few years, to be a saint, and vice versa. “…for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” There has been animosity not only by Calvinists toward those perceived to be condemned but by Calvinists and Arminians toward each other. Why would an Arminian want to condemn a believer for wanting to give all the credit to God, and why would a Calvinist want to condemn a believer and servant of God for having a different understanding of the process by which that wonderful thing happened? It is the sins of hate, fear, and pride that lead to such condemnations.

The third problem, Complacency, is the tendency of some who believe they are among the elect to withdraw in complacency, sit on their hands, and ignore the commands of Christ to the church. If all has been predetermined by God and is in His hands, why do more than just wait? Why do missionary work if it has already been determined who will be saved and who will be lost?

Acceptance, Assurance, and Accountability

There is an important positive aspect to the doctrine of predestination. As an explanation of the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone, the doctrine of single predestination gives us the assurance, confidence, and strength to listen to and try to follow the commands of Christ for the Church. As Luther put it, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Because we are chosen and justified we need not worry about our own status with God and are therefore free to serve unselfishly.

Labels for these benefits of predestination might be Acceptance, Assurance, and Accountability. If we feel a hunger for communion with God, we know that we are touched by His grace. We are assured that, if we are touched by His grace, we are chosen to serve. If we are chosen, we know we have a responsibility to follow His commands and are accountable for doing so. We know we are free to follow those commands, not in order to be His, but because we are His and because of the faith and love and gratitude He has given us.

It is interesting to think about St. Paul, who wrote early predestination theology in his epistle to the Romans. When St. Paul was still called Saul and was holding the cloaks of the men who stoned the young Christian Deacon, Stephen, to death, it would have seemed clear to any predestinarian observer that Saul was not among the elect of God. However, being struck blind for three days and being spoken to directly by Jesus made a dramatic change in the life of Paul. He became a great evangelist, theologian, apostle, and teacher. The Arminian might say that Paul decided to Follow Jesus. The Reformed “grace alone” theologian might say that God rendered Paul teachable. Paul certainly knew that he had not come voluntarily to Christ and that it was only an act of God that had brought him to that point. It was clear to Paul that he had been elected and changed by God, and that fact made it easy for Paul to teach the doctrines of election and salvation by grace alone.

The case of Paul illustrates the important point that we, who are constrained by time, do not know the future. Therefore it is doubly useless to speculate about who is elect and who is not. Not only would the information be useless if we had it, it is impossible to obtain. An additional complication is that God is not constrained by time, and what God may do completely outside our understanding of a person’s earthly existence for the average three score years and ten is a total mystery to us.

St. Augustine, another theologian who taught predestination, never persecuted the Church as Paul did but struggled unsuccessfully for years to achieve spiritual peace. Finally, it came to him as a free gift of God after he read Romans 13:13. As he wrote, “No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away. Luther had his “tower experience” as a free gift from God which eliminated the anfechtung which had spiritually crippled him for years. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Wesley, and other great Christian leaders gave similar testimony of how they had received the free gifts of acceptance and assurance and had finally felt free to serve God with all their energies, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in thankfulness for what they had received.

Responsibilities of the Elect

Scripture is clear on the responsibilities of members of Christ’s church, the elect. We are to love and serve and worship God and to love and serve each other. Christians are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are to tell the Gospel story and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are to avoid judging each other. Based on the example of Christ, we should associate with and witness and minister to the un-popular and the sinful and the disreputable as He did with Samaritans and lepers and tax collectors. We are told to let the weeds grow with the wheat until the time of harvest. Focus on a doctrine of double predestination does nothing to help the Church accomplish these responsibilities.

Suppose for a moment that it is possible to know whether a person is among the elect or not. What would our Christian responsibility in such a case be? Would it not be more Christian to love and care for and support that person rather than judge them, persecute them, or cast them out of the fellowship? Certainly, if we believe that we are chosen by God, not because of any merit on our part, and that another is condemned by God, not because of any demerit on his or her part, our feeling toward the one condemned should be one of sympathy and support rather than of fear and loathing. If being the salt of the earth and the city on a hill means making life better for all and telling people the promises of the Gospel, what better opportunity would there be for that than with the apparently condemned. Scripture also makes it clear that, even if a person is predestined to eternal life, the means God uses to bring those persons into the Kingdom is the Gospel message and that it is the responsibility of the church to deliver that message to all. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

Summary

We cannot use the doctrine of double predestination, which, incidentally, is clearly rejected in the Lutheran Confessions, to excuse our failures to love one another, to help those who need help, and to worship God. We are commanded to do those things in scripture and have no choice but to obey or to disobey. We cannot use the doctrine of double predestination to justify keeping our mouths shut about Jesus. We are clearly commanded to tell the story of Jesus. Predestination is good only for the Assurance, Acceptance, and Accountability it gives us, and it is good for that only if we avoid the sins of Curiosity, Condemnation, and Complacency that excessive focus on predestination can lead to. The best way for the Christian to view predestination is simply as the “flip side” of the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace alone. God alone saves, and there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.

Thanks be to God!

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Luther, M. 1999, c1957. Luther's works, vol. 31 : Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Vol. 31 (Vol. 31, Page 345). Fortress Press: Philadelphia

Tappert, Theodore G. The Book of Concord, trans. By Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.