Posts Tagged ‘John Goldingay’

God will not be put off by human stupidity

June 4, 2016
FullSizeRender

The commentary says it’s “for everyone,” but, judging by the cover, it’s only for beautiful people. I bought it anyway. ūüėČ

We human beings don’t like grace very much. We like to see wrongdoing punished and good works rewarded‚ÄĒso long as we don’t reflect on our own actions very¬†much. When we do, of course, we’re¬†all about grace, grace, grace! The response of approximately¬†246 million zoological and parenting experts who have weighed in this week on the event at the Cincinnati Zoo is a case in point: We are not, in general, a gracious people.

All of which makes God’s response to Jacob in Genesis 28:10-22 all the more startling, as John Goldingay’s commentary makes clear. (Please note, Goldingay’s¬†refers to angels as God’s “aides.”)

What God does in Jacob’s dream is open his eyes to something that is happening all the time; the scene parallels one where Elisha prays for his servant to be able to see the supernatural forces that protect them when they are in danger (2 Kings 6). It is continually the case that God is involved in the world and¬†sending aides on missions. You cannot see them, but they are at work. Jacob has every reason to be apprehensive about his situation. He has lied to his father, taken God’s name in vain, cheated his father, made Esau want to kill him, and had to set out on his way out of the promised land. God steps in to give him reassurance that all this does not mean God’s purpose will be frustrated. God’s aides are still at work not because Jacob deserves to have God active in his life but because God will not be put off from acting just by Rebekah and Jacob’s stupidity. Not only does God enable him to see the aides who are continually ¬†active in God’s work in the world, but God personally shows up in the dream, without electrocuting Jacob, to give him a special message of encouragement.[‚Ć]

To Goldingay’s list of charges against Jacob, I would add that even after being given this gracious word from the Lord, Jacob’s “conversion” remains far from complete. God gives Jacob some unconditional promises; Jacob responds with conditions: “If you do this, I’ll do that.”

“That Jacob!” we say. “Why is he such a sinner? Why is he such a screw-up? Why isn’t he more faithful?”

Faithful. You know… Like we’re faithful.

† John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part Two (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 87.

“For you will not delight in sacrifice”

September 29, 2015

goldingay_psalmsIn my recent re-reading of Numbers, I noticed something that I had overlooked my entire Christian life: the sacrificial system of ancient Israel¬†never presumed¬†to forgive all sin, only sins of ignorance and uncleanness. As Numbers 15:30 puts it, “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel.” Defiant, “high-handed,” intentional, or deliberate sin (depending on your translation) isn’t covered by sacrifices, including the sacrifice of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. As the author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 9:7: “but into the second [room, the Most Holy Place] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.”

John Goldingay makes this clear in his commentary on Psalm 51:16-17: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;¬†you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.¬†The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;¬†a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Sacrifices can deal with small problems of uncleanness but not serious sin; and sacrifices that express praise and commitment are nonsense when your relationship with God has broken down. When your wife has caught you being unfaithful, a gift of flowers or even a new car is not going to get you¬†anywhere. It’s the same with God. All you can do when you have committed serious sin is cast yourself on God’s grace as someone who is crushed and broken by the price you have paid for your wrongdoing‚ÄĒas the Jerusalem community was in the exile. Then, if God forgives you and answers¬†the prayers that come in the psalm, and does see to the city’s rebuilding, you can recommence your regular life of worship, in which sacrifice has its proper place as an expression of praise and commitment.[1]

Why does this matter? Two reasons: First, it makes better sense of our need for Christ. It’s not as if the old covenant was already sufficient to atone for people’s sins; it was never intended to be. Second, whereas David could only “cast himself on God’s grace,” hoping that the truth about God to which the Old Testament bears witness‚ÄĒthat God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”‚ÄĒwould enable him to have a restored relationship, we have the objective certainty that on the cross of God’s Son Jesus, forgiveness for all sin has been made available to all. There’s no hoping, no guesswork.

Again, as Hebrews says, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

What else can we do but praise God when we consider this?

1. John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: WJK, 2013), 163-4.

The Bible assumes that “God is involved in this world, even in its wickedness”

October 17, 2014

esther_for_everyoneIn yesterday’s post about the missionary nurse who contracted and was then cured of Ebola, I said that many Christians resist the idea that human suffering could have any role to play in God’s plans for our world. But as I’ve said many times, the alternative is far worse: God is hands-off when it comes to evil and suffering; he may¬†hate¬†it for us, but he has no power to prevent it, transform it, or use it to serve his purposes. Nevertheless, the¬†moment we say, “God answered my prayer and prevented this evil from happening,” is the moment that we assert God’s involvement in and control over evil and suffering. It’s the moment we say, “This‚ÄĒeven this¬†bad thing‚ÄĒis happening for a reason. It’s serving God’s purposes.”

As he does on so many pressing issues, John Goldingay sheds light on the relationship¬†between God’s sovereignty and evil in his¬†For Everyone commentary.¬†Here he’s commenting on Esther 2:1-18:

Gross self-indulgence for which other people pay the price, sexual oppression and abuse, anti-Semitism, and slaughter are facts of the world in which we live. One of the great characteristics of the Bible is that it faces those facts. It does not deal with issues of a merely spiritual kind. It deals with how things are in our world. It invites us to face the fact of what happens to young girls in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Then, most scandalously, it invites us to assume that God is involved in this world, even in its wickedness. The Persian king is about to seek to eliminate the Jewish people, and the means whereby God will avoid the fulfillment of that intention is the sexual abuse of the teenage Esther. Esther pays a price and her entire people lives. It might seem disturbing that God is prepared to use such means to bring about the defeat of evil. It would be even more disturbing if such horrors happened and were incapable of having any significance.[†]

† John Goldingay, Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2012), 164-5.

Does Ruth have sex with Boaz on the threshing floor?

September 22, 2014
Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in a romantic comedy

Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in a romantic comedy

In an early draft of my sermon yesterday, I compared the Book of Ruth to a romantic comedy. It wasn’t my original thought: it came from John Goldingay. But true¬†enough, the book¬†does have the hallmarks of one: the meet-cute of chapter 2, the falling in love of chapter 3, the threat to the couple’s love in chapter 4, along with a happy ending.

Does it also have Hollywood’s¬†obligatory pre-martital sex scene in Ruth 3?

Scholarly opinion on the question of whether the couple have sex on the threshing floor is mixed. It is, without question, an erotically charged scene. After all,¬†Ruth’s¬†mother-in-law tells her to bathe, put on make-up, wear her finest clothes, wait until Boaz has eaten and drunk (alcohol) and “his heart was merry,”¬†and then “uncover his feet.” Then, when morning comes, Boaz¬†acts to protect Ruth from scandal, sending her away “before one could recognize another.”

We know for sure that “uncovering one’s nakedness” is a biblical euphemism¬†for sexual intercourse. This was likely Ham’s sin against his father, Noah, in Genesis 9:20-28‚ÄĒthat he humiliated him by penetrating him anally‚ÄĒnot merely that his son saw his father naked.

Doesn’t Noah’s curse make much more sense in this context?

We also know for sure that a man’s “foot” is often a biblical euphemism for genitalia.

Additionally, the scene in Ruth 3 likely alludes to¬†Genesis 19, when Lot’s daughters ply their father with wine in order to become pregnant by him. While this may seem like a stretch to us contemporary readers, ancient Israelites would already have Genesis 19 in mind: Ruth was a Moabite, and Moabites are descendants of the incestuous union of Lot and his eldest daughter.¬†The story is likely playing on the ancient stereotype that Moabite women are morally loose.

So does all this mean that Ruth and Boaz had premarital sex?

While I’m aware that many progressive Christians¬†would have us¬†believe that the Bible’s witness against sex outside of marriage isn’t as airtight as we uptight conservatives¬†think, I say no‚ÄĒan emphatic no.

First, Ruth’s purpose in going to Boaz isn’t to sleep with him simply because she’s attracted to him, which would be the case in a romantic comedy,¬†but to propose marriage to him. This is what she means when she says, “Spread your wings¬†over your servant, for you are¬†a redeemer.”

Second, if they¬†did have sex that night, the act itself would be an act of consummation of marriage, not inconsequential premarital sex as our culture understands it today.¬†Both Boaz and Ruth understood that the act itself implied marriage. As Goldingay writes in his¬†For Everyone commentary, getting married in ancient Israel didn’t require the blessing of civil or ecclesial authorities. In which case, as many commentators point out, Ruth wasn’t making herself up and wearing her finest clothes in order to seduce Boaz, but to marry him.

Goldingay writes:

There are lots of ambiguities about the way the story is told that reflect the ambiguity in what Ruth was to do. Dressing yourself up the way Ruth does could mean making it look as if you are a bride on her wedding day, but it could mean trying to look seductive. Uncovering someone’s feet could mean what it says, but “uncovering someone’s nakedness” is a euphemism for having sex with them, and “feet” can be a euphemism for genitals. If a man wakes up in the middle of the night and finds a woman lying next to him, he could hardly¬†be blamed for thinking she is offering herself to him, though he would be wise also to remember that accepting the offer might mean he will have a hard time avoiding marrying her. To put it another way, sleeping with an unattached woman might imply a marriage commitment. As far as we know, in Israel there is no such thing as a marriage service or a registrar of marriages. Such things belong in urbanized and mobile cultures. So even if Ruth is offering herself to Boaz sexually, she might seem by that act to be proposing and not merely propositioning. Simply offering him a one-night stand would be prejudicing her future with any other man. And what we know about both Ruth¬†and¬†Boaz would make it unlikely that either of them would just be interested¬†in a one-night stand with someone.[‚Ć]

† Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 179-80.

This week’s Bible hero, Gideon, had no leadership potential whatsoever

September 5, 2014

for_everyoneThis Sunday I’m preaching on Gideon, that¬†very cautious and¬†reluctant Bible hero who led Israel in victory over the Midianites in Judges 6-8. While¬†I was jotting down personal observations on the text, I wrote the following: “God saw some potential in Gideon that others, including Gideon himself, couldn’t see.”

Sounds nice, right? John Goldingay disagrees.

According to Goldingay, Gideon has no¬†potential whatsoever. But that’s¬†O.K. because this story proves that God needs nothing from us, except¬†our reluctant consent to be used of God.

Is Goldingay¬†right? Well, if I were¬†given a choice between listening to me or listening to Goldingay, I’d go with Goldingay!

Here are his words about Gideon from his¬†For Everyone commentary. When the angel of the Lord encounters Gideon, Gideon tells the angel that he wants to see some¬†action on God’s part:

The good news is that he is about to get some. The bad news is that he is the means of God’s deliverance being put into effect. At one level, his incredulous response is quite reasonable. He has shown no more leadership ability than anyone else in his obscure family. As was the case with Moses, God determines to use someone who is a failure, without obvious potential and without religious insight, because God’s using someone does not depend on that person’s leadership qualities or spiritual insight. God designates Gideon a mighty warrior not because he has potential that no one has noticed but simply because that is the way God intends to use him.

Gideon’s requesting a sign is a further indication that he lacks spiritual insight. Yet even this does not make God decide to abandon him and get someone with more obvious potential (perhaps there was no one).[‚Ć]

† John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 109.

If God-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament is a problem, Jesus is unaware of it

September 2, 2014

In a post last week, I wrote about perceived ethical problems raised by Israel’s conquest of Canaan, which strikes¬†modern readers like an ancient example of genocide or ethnic cleansing.¬†In Judges, for instance, from which I’m preaching for the next couple of weeks,¬†God punishes Israel for failing to completely drive out the inhabitants of the various Canaanite towns that Israel encountered.¬†Adam Hamilton’s solution is to say that these events didn’t¬†happen in the first place, or¬†if they did,¬†we can know that God wasn’t responsible because of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

I reject this solution on the grounds that it solves one problem while creating a much larger one. As Tim Keller writes in his Judges for You commentary:

The main reason that we consider the conquest of Canaan problematic is because it breaks the sixth commandment (“You shall not murder,” Exodus 20:13) and the eighth commandment (“You shall not steal,” Exodus 20:15). But the the Ten Commandments are in the Old Testament! So if we reject the Old Testament as God’s true revelation, then on what basis do we object to the “immorality” of the conquest? It is arbitrary to say¬†I like Exodus 20¬†if we then also say¬†I don’t like Judges 1. If the Old Testament is not God’s word, then who’s to say that one chapter is better than the other? To deny the authority of the Old Testament in order to “solve” this issue is like burning down your whole house in order to kill a rat that lives in it. If the Old Testament is not God’s word, then we must find a totally different basis for what is right and wrong… But we can’t quote the Ten Commandments anymore; so what is wrong with a little imperialism?[1]

Of course, many progressive¬†Christians would say that the “totally different basis for what is right and wrong” comes from Jesus. They affirm those parts of the Old Testament that Jesus affirmed. One liberal Catholic scholar¬†I read recently thought he made his case against the conquest of Canaan by pointing¬†out that Jesus “never quoted Joshua or Judges.” QED, I guess?

The problem, as Andrew Wilson pointed out not long ago, is that the¬†fully formed¬†portrait of Jesus that emerges from¬†the gospels, unlike the “progressive-y red-letter” Jesus based on¬†a highly selective reading of them,¬†is that “Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.”

As I implied in my earlier post, the only thing worse than hell on earth is hell in eternity. And Jesus talked about that more than anyone!

Old Testament scholar John Goldingay prefers¬†to take¬†the Bible at face value. He assumes that if we have a problem with it,¬†the problem lies with us, not God or his Word. He¬†sheds light on God-sanctioned violence in his¬†For Everyone¬†commentary on Joshua. He¬†doesn’t waste a word in the following¬†three paragraphs:

Many modern people don’t like the way the book portrays Joshua’s leading Israel in killing many Canaanites, but there is no indication that the New Testament shares this modern unease. The New Testament pictures Joshua as a great hero (see Hebrews 11) and portrays God’s violent dispossession of the Canaanites as part of the achievement of God’s purpose in salvation (see Acts 7). If there is a contradiction between loving your enemies and being peacemakers on one hand, and Joshua’s undertaking the task at God’s command, on the other, the New Testament does not see it.

We need to separate two issues in considering the questions all this raises. One is that the Old Testament sees the Canaanites as under God’s judgment for their wrongdoing. The idea that God judges people for their wrongdoing runs through both Testaments; Jesus is tougher about it as he pictures God sending people not merely to early death but to hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. In the context of modernity, we do not care for this idea, but we need to note its prominence in Jesus’ thinking.

The other issue is that the Old Testament sees God as using the Israelites as the agents of judgement. I’m not sure why we don’t like this idea, but the concern people often express is that it could become the basis or justification today for making war against other people. But Israel itself never saw God’s commission to dispose of the Canaanites as a precedent for its relationships with other people. Nor does the book of Joshua imply that Joshua’s action was a pattern for Israel’s future practice. Occupying Canaan and being the means of bringing God’s judgment on the Canaanites was a one-time event from the beginning of its story.[2]

1. Timothy Keller, Judges for You (The Good Book Company, 2013), 211-2.

2. John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 3-4.

God doesn’t relate to us by “mind games played inside God’s head”

August 15, 2014

Based on the cover, not so much "for everyone" as for the really beautiful people.

Based on the cover, not so much “for everyone” as for the really beautiful people.

John Goldingay’s Old Testament commentary series, “For Everyone,” is a treasure. In his commentary on the scripture I’m preaching on this Sunday, Genesis 22:1-18, he deals briefly with the difficult question, What does an omniscient God “learn” from Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac?

As I said in a recent post, Goldingay doesn’t care about “systematic theology” nearly so much as he cares about what the Bible actually says. I care about both‚ÄĒinasmuch as our systematic theology is faithful to scripture‚ÄĒso I’m more interested in reconciling tensions between the two¬†than he is. Still, I find his words below helpful.

Perhaps even for God, there is a kind of “knowing”¬†that comes through¬†watching human beings do things in the world that is different from merely knowing in advance how they would¬†behave‚ÄĒeven by watching it unfold in the mind’s eye of God’s foreknowledge.

But this story is explicit that the testing happens so God can discover something. That was so at the beginning of the story in the reference to testing. It was so when the aide bade Abraham halt the sacrificial act: “Now I know that you revere God; you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” The Bible ignores the logic of the question of whether God could not know how a person like Abraham would react if he had this demand placed on him. Perhaps God could indeed know how Abraham will react, but God does not relate to us and to the world by mind games played inside God’s head. It is one thing to know that someone who loves you would do anything for you because of that; it is another kind of knowing when that person actually makes a monumental sacrifice for you.1

† John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part Two (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010), 53.

“Deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true”

August 9, 2014
Based on the cover, not so much "for everyone" as for the really beautiful people.

Based on the cover, not so much “for everyone” as for the really beautiful people.

Along with most of the universal church throughout history, not to mention my systematic theology professor at Emory, I believe in God’s foreknowledge: since God is outside of time, in eternity, God knows what happens in the future because God is already there, present in every moment at all times,¬†past, present, and future. The doctrine of God’s foreknowledge solves some¬†problems. I’m happy to know that no matter how bad things seem in our world at present, God has already worked things through to a certain future‚ÄĒand that future is good beyond our imagining.

This¬†doctrine is by far¬†the predominant view of scripture‚ÄĒtoo many texts to cite, but someone put together this page, so you may well start here.¬†My favorite is Revelation 13:8 (which isn’t even on that list), which refers to Christ being the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” From God’s eternal vantage point, before he even created the world, he knows one¬†consequence¬†will be the world’s redemption¬†through Christ.

But God’s foreknowledge also creates some problems. Just today, on a¬†theological blog, I read a commenter who complained that if God has¬†foreknowledge, then human free will can’t¬†exist. I¬†suspect he meant that if God knows the future, then we humans are unable to do anything that isn’t already “written in stone”‚ÄĒat least¬†from the perspective of a God who sees all of human history eternally laid out in front of him, so to speak.

I remember raising a version of this objection in systematic theology class. “What good is petitionary prayer,” I asked, “if, from God’s point of view, the future is already¬†written?”¬†My professor, Dr. Stefen L√∂sel, acknowledged the “problem” of God’s foreknowledge. But he also said¬†something that helped me: “It’s true that God already¬†sees the future, but the future that God sees¬†is determined in part by our give and take with God, including the prayers that we pray in the present.”

I would emphasize¬†that¬†God doesn’t¬†have to operate in this way: he doesn’t have to cooperate or collaborate with us at all. He could run roughshod over our freedom and will. (And if I read my Calvinist brethren correctly, they think God does just that!) But most of us Christians believe that God graciously condescends¬†to work with us on this project of running the world‚ÄĒwhich means that God becomes at least as interested in this present moment as we are, even as he knows precisely where this present moment will lead.

And here’s where things get tricky: When the Bible depicts God’s working in time alongside us (rather than in eternity), startling¬†things happen. For example, the Bible depicts God in Genesis 6 (part of our scripture in my sermon this Sunday) experiencing¬†regret for having created us disobedient human creatures. Since it’s¬†impossible for us humans to experience an emotion like regret without also being surprised by an outcome that we didn’t foresee, we wonder how God can experience regret‚ÄĒsince God foresees everything.

See the problem?

Fuller Seminary professor John Goldingay does, as he describes in his excellent For Everyone commentary on Genesis. But unlike many of us, he¬†seems¬†unbothered by it. Where our tidy systematic theologies fail to align neatly with the Bible, Goldingay sides with the Bible. I can’t argue with that. If a doctrine¬†like God’s foreknowledge doesn’t make complete sense to me, I’d rather say, “Of course it doesn’t make complete sense to me! I’m not God! Nevertheless, this is what scripture says, so I believe it.”

This isn’t¬†anti-intellectualism; it’s just humility about what I can understand about the things of God.

One thing I’m less willing to do than previously‚ÄĒnot¬†unwilling, just¬†less willing‚ÄĒis to¬†cry, “Anthropomorphism!” whenever God comes across in scripture¬†as¬†too human, from my perspective. We are made in God’s image, after all. Whatever that means, it means we’re a little bit like God. Besides, if you take the concept of anthropomorphism too far, as my clergy colleague Jason Micheli often does,¬†you begin protecting your rationalistic theology at the expense of biblical authority.

Like Goldingay, when I have to choose between the Bible and my theology, well… I assume my theology needs some work.

So here’s Goldingay talking about God experiencing¬†regret in Genesis 6.¬†I strongly affirm the second paragraph. I’ve highlighted the most interesting parts (to me) in bold. What do you think?

This is extraordinary because you cannot regret something unless you had not foreseen it, which implies that the developments we have been reading about in Genesis have taken God by surprise. Once again, Genesis raises a question about our assumption that God knows everything, so that there is nothing God has not foreseen. The Old Testament implies that God quite often has surprises, usually unpleasant ones. It also makes clear that God is able to know what will happen in the future (and is thus able to reveal it to people), but God seems not always to exercise that capacity and instead lives in linear time with us. God is eternal in the sense of living through all time, but God is not timeless. God mostly lives in the present and thus can be taken aback by things, but God is not caught by events in touch a way as not to be able to cope with things. God has infinite capacity to handle whatever happens, and God is involved in a responsive relationship with the world.

Does the Bible simply speak of God having surprises and regretting things only because that is how it looks to us? Is God simply portrayed as if God were a human being? This seems to involve deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says. If the Bible does not mean it when it says God regrets things, why should we assume it means it when it says other humanlike things about God, such as that God loves us?[†]

† John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010), 96.

When we feel like “total failures”

December 14, 2012
Based on the cover, not so much "for everyone" as for the really beautiful people.

Based on the cover, not so much “for everyone” as for the really beautiful people.

John Goldingay, whose For Everyone¬†commentaries on the Old Testament I couldn’t recommend more highly, writes with candor and self-deprecation, qualities that, I hope, are reflected in my own preaching and blogging. Like Goldingay (I suspect), I tend toward self-doubt and pessimism. I’m not saying that I’m justified in this tendency. But it’s who I am. After 42 years of being this way, I’m probably not going to wake up an entirely different person.

With this in mind, you can imagine how much I appreciate this first paragraph of Goldingay’s reflection on 1 Kings 19, where Elijah runs away in fear from the murderous Jezebel:

I am inclined to think that nothing I do in seeking to fulfill my vocation achieves anything. My vocation is to help people understand the Old Testament and let their thinking and their lives be shaped by it. I am passionately committed to this task and want to carry on seeking to fulfill it rather than retire and spend more time cycling on the boardwalk, but I am inclined to think I totally fail. It is not because I am incompetent but because the odds are stacked so high by the church’s ignorance of the Old Testament, especially in our culture over recent decades. Nothing I can do, like writing all these commentaries or having four five hundred student in my classes every year, can make a significant difference. This raises the question of why I continue seeking to fulfill this vocation, and I guess the answer is contained within the question. It is my vocation.[‚Ć]

† John Goldingay, 1 & 2 Kings for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2011), 90.

God “lives in linear time with us”?

July 5, 2012

Perhaps not “for everyone,” but at least for young, attractive people.

In John Goldingay’s¬†For Everyone¬†commentary on Genesis 6:5-8 (a text included in this Sunday’s scripture reading on Noah and the flood), Goldingay describes four “astonishing” reactions from God to the world’s violence and sinfulness.

The first is regret at having created humanity. This is extraordinary because you cannot regret something unless you had not foreseen it, which implies that the developments we have been reading about in Genesis have taken God by surprise. Once again, Genesis raises a question about our assumption that God knows everything, so that there is nothing God has not foreseen. The Old Testament implies that God quite often has surprises, usually unpleasant ones. It also makes clear that God is able to know what will happen in the future (and is thus able to reveal it to people), but God seems not always to exercise that capacity and instead lives in linear time with us. God is eternal in the sense of living through all time, but God is not timeless. God mostly lives in the present and thus can be taken aback by things, but God is not caught by events in such a way as not to be able to cope with things. God has infinite capacity to handle whatever happens, and God is involved in a responsive relationship with the world.[1]

I don’t quote this passage because I “agree” that God’s foreknowledge is limited‚ÄĒor even that God places a self-imposed limit on what he knows. But I do agree, along with Goldingay, that this is what the Bible implies. And, by all means, let’s deal, first, with what the Bible actually says (or implies)‚ÄĒbefore we spackle over it with our tidy theology. I gather that this is what Goldingay would say, too.

When dealing with classic Bible passages like Genesis 6 or Jonah 3‚ÄĒboth of which suggest that God changes his mind in response to new information‚ÄĒI would say, and have said many times in the past, that this is simply anthropomorphism: the Bible writers are ascribing to God human personality traits so that we can relate to him better. But¬†darn that Goldingay! He anticipates this response in the next paragraph:

Does the Bible simply speak of God having surprises and regretting things only because that is how it looks to us? Is God simply portrayed as if God were a human being? This seems to involve deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says. If the Bible does not mean it when it says God regrets things, why should we assume it means it when it says other humanlike things about God, such as that God loves us?[2]

Deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says…¬†Yikes! I have no clever reply to this, except to concede that I’m sure he’s right.

Darn you, John Goldingay! And thank you for challenging me.

1. John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 95-6.

2. Ibid., 96.