Posts Tagged ‘Unbelievable? podcast’

God is no “mere spectator to events”

March 17, 2018

In my never-ending quest to own every study Bible on the market (I’m kidding… maybe), Lisa gave me the Spurgeon Study Bible from Holman last Christmas. I have used it nearly every day since. While the ESV Study Bible remains my work-a-day Bible, I cross-reference what I read there with the Spurgeon Study Bible to see if “the prince of preachers” offers any insights into that day’s scripture. (Or I should say, if the publishers include Spurgeon’s commentary on the text, it will be insightful; but in the interest of space, they can’t include his commentary on every chapter and verse!)

The following commentary is an excerpt from Spurgeon’s words on Daniel 4:34-35, which I read this morning.

The Lord’s place is on the throne, and our place is to obey; it is his to govern, ours to serve; his to do as he will, and ours, without questioning, to make that will our constant delight. Remember then, that in the universe God is actually reigning; never let us conceive of God as being infinitely great but not exerting his greatness, infinitely able to reign, but as yet a mere spectator to events. It is not so. The Lord reigns even now. Glory be to the omnipresent and invisible Lord of all!

Remember then, that in the universe God is actually reigning; never let us conceive of God as being infinitely great but not exerting his greatness, infinitely able to reign, but as yet a mere spectator to events.

There is, of course, nothing to these words that should be controversial to my regular blog readers—or to any Christian for the first, say, 1,900 years of Christian history. Recently, however, there has been a devilish idea (I use that adjective advisedly—I believe Satan is behind it) among many Christian preachers and teachers that says, in so many words, “God is a mere spectator to events.”

This is in part a well-intentioned effort to “protect” or insulate God from evil, catastrophic events in the world, which skeptics might use to tarnish God’s name. If God has no power (or desire) to intervene in our world, the reasoning goes, then at least we can tell our fellow sufferers, “There, there… God has nothing to do with this. God hates that you’re suffering, but what’s he supposed to do about it? God is suffering alongside you; he is with you.” (This message was communicated in a hundred different ways through my mainline Protestant seminary education.)

Does that make us feel better? How can it? By that same logic, we should also tell them, “Don’t expect God to grant any of your prayer petitions—especially those related to protection and safety.” Because if God has nothing to do with suffering, he has nothing to do with anything in our world. He is a “mere spectator,” as Spurgeon says.

Of course, the Bible contradicts this idea on every page. Try listening to this recent Unbelievable? episode with “open theist” Greg Boyd, for example, and see if the authority of scripture doesn’t die a death by a thousand cuts.

Thank God that the God in whom we entrust our lives isn’t like that! Thank God for the “all” in Romans 8:28:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Devotional Podcast #19: “Nothing to Show for Ourselves”

March 8, 2018

In this episode, I reflect once again on Billy Graham’s life, as seen through the eyes of Washington Post columnist George F. Will, who wrote a column deeply critical of Graham. Reading that column helped me to learn something unflattering about myself, which I want to share with you. Maybe you can relate?

Devotional Text: Philippians 4:11-13

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Wednesday, March 7, and this is devotional podcast number 19.

You’re listening to a sweet song called “Blue, Red and Grey.” It was written and performed—on ukulele, no less—by Pete Townshend. It appears on his band’s 1975 album, The Who by Numbers. Townshend, who swore one time that he never wrote a proper love song, is likely singing about God when sings,

I like every second
So long as you are on my mind
Every moment has its special charm
It’s all right when you’re around, rain or shine

But what appeals to me here is the contentment expressed by the song. I’m sure Townshend would be the first to tell you that it’s aspirational. In the context of an otherwise deeply unhappy album, the song’s optimism is jarring. But he’s exactly right to aspire to this level of contentment, no matter how elusive it may be.

But what if it doesn’t have to elude us? What if the apostle Paul is telling the truth when he writes the following in Philippians 4:11-13?

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

In the wake of Billy Graham’s death two weeks ago, Washington Post columnist George Will—wasting no time, apparently, to speak ill of the dead—published an editorial critical of the evangelist—on the very day that the Rev. Graham died. Graham was “no prophet,” Mr. Will said—as if he ever claimed or aspired to be. Why? Because he never challenged the status quo—otherwise how could he have been so beloved by millions? “Prophets are without honor” and all that, Will reminds us. So Graham must have been some kind of people-pleaser.

Except… even Will conceded that Graham did challenge the status quo on matters of race: as early as 1952, years before the tide turned against Jim Crow and segregation in the South. As a white southerner myself, born a generation after the fiercest battles of the civil rights movement had been fought and won, 1952 seems heroically early for a white southerner like Graham to speak in defense of equality and desegregation. Nevertheless, Will said, Graham “rarely stepped far in advance of the majority.”[1] Read the rest of this entry »

The angel at the empty tomb doesn’t say, “Take my word for it”

April 25, 2017

In my Easter sermon from this year, which I will post on my blog soon, I spend about half the sermon talking about evidence for the resurrection, based on clues from the sermon text, Matthew 28:1-20. The text itself invites us to look at the evidence. Frederick Dale Bruner, the theologian whose commentary on Matthew has proven so valuable for my sermon series in Matthew, certainly thinks so. He writes the following in relation to verse 6 and the angel’s words to the two Marys: “Come and take a look at the place where they put him.”

Among other things, this is the Gospel’s invitation to scientific research. The angel does not say, “Don’t look in here! Take it by faith! Don’t ask any questions!” Instead, the angel invites the women to check out his assertions with their senses. “Come, use your eyes and your mind, and see if what I say is true.” The scientific study of the biblical documents (called the historical-critical method) asks critical questions: “Did this happen? Is this historical? Is this parabolic? How does this fit with other and differing accounts? What is to be made of this in light of that?” These questions are not unbelief; rather, they are one form of obedience to the command to “come and take a loot the place where they put him” to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)….

The Christian does not get a lobotomy when he or she makes the decision to be a disciple. Jesus wants his people to be honest, to think about their faith, and to be able to investigate its problems. The angel’s command to empirical investigation is wonderfully freeing, and rightly heard it can protect the church from anti-intellectualism.

I affirm this, with two caveats: First, no purely “scientific” investigation can begin to answer questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that it won’t also require faith to believe in it. Ultimately, we only come to this faith by revelation from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

Even an apologist like William Lane Craig—who has been criticized by some Reformed Christians (or at least one that I’ve heard, James White) for being too rational in his approach to God and the resurrection—believes that saving faith comes only by a revelatory act of the Spirit. By contrast, on his Reasonable Faith podcast, he said that when he was an undergraduate at Wheaton, one of his professors said he was so committed to the reasonableness of Christianity that he would abandon the faith if it proved unreasonable to believe it.

Craig said he was shocked: “If one of my arguments for God or the truth of Christianity proved false, I would assume that a better argument existed—because I already know Christianity is true. And I know that by revelation.”

My second caveat is that the historical-critical method will never prove that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Inasmuch as it’s “scientific,” this method isn’t, by definition, equipped to offer a judgment on the question. For that we need faith. By all means, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible can become more reasonable when we consider Jesus’ own high view of scripture. As a rule of thumb, when deciding whether something is true or not, always go with the opinion of the guy who was raised from the dead!

But in my own experience over the past eight years—having gone from doubting the Bible’s authority to believing in it to the utmost—I will say this: most of the Bible’s “problems,” such as they are, can be resolved once we ask ourselves this question: “What should I expect to be true if God the Holy Spirit guided the author to write what he wrote?”

As an example, consider this debate between skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? podcast. McGrew was discussing “undesigned coincidences” in the New Testament: when one small part of the New Testament unintentionally corroborates another small part—such that the two parts fit together like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. McGrew was right: undesigned coincidences are a powerful apologetic tool, but only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the Spirit inspired the different authors of the New Testament.

Are you willing or not? If not, why not?

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, a trolling progressive Christian whose name I won’t mention often comments on McKnight’s blog posts. In even the most innocuous post that affirms the authority of scripture, you can count on a skeptical comment from this reader. I want to say to him, “Yes, but suppose the evangelicals are right after all, and the Bible is reliable and true when it reports this or that. Why are you against that? What’s at stake for you in believing that the Bible isn’t historically reliable? Why do you prefer to believe that the Bible is, at best, only true in a metaphorical way?”

If I believed I could have a productive conversation I would ask him, but I know from experience I can’t.

Come to think of it, I could ask the same of my progressive Methodist clergy colleagues!

The problem of God’s “hiddenness”

February 28, 2017

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

In his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation (great title, by the way), Jerry Walls, a United Methodist theologian, makes a case for perdition in the face of modern objections. One of these objections is this: “What about those who’ve never heard the gospel, or who’ve heard only a deficient version of it? Would God send them to hell, even though they had no fair opportunity to hear and respond to God’s message of salvation through Christ?”

It’s a good question, and one which the Bible doesn’t address directly. Walls’s answer, which he acknowledges is speculative, is that God gives everyone a sufficient amount of grace—either in this life or shortly thereafter—to accept or reject the gospel. In other words, in the liminal space between time and eternity, during the moment of a person’s death, God may yet reveal himself to an unsaved person and enable him or her to say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life.

Yes, you might say, but if someone were facing a choice of salvation or damnation right away—as opposed to in some hypothetical future, where most of us keep the prospect of our own death—who wouldn’t choose salvation?

Maybe no one, in which case, Walls would say, the “choice” wouldn’t be free. The dying person wouldn’t choose God out of a sincere desire and love for God; the person would choose God out of fear alone. Therefore, his or her choice would be coerced.

Walls responds to this objection as follows:

[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such  reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.

In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.[†]

Whether you agree with the idea of postmortem conversion or not—and let me say that I hope it’s possible (the rich man and his brothers in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 apparently already had a sufficient amount of grace in their lifetimes)—Walls’s handling of the “free response” objection helps me make sense of a question that has nagged me over the years: If God wants us to know him, why doesn’t he do more to reveal himself to us? Why does he often seem hidden, even from sincere atheists who, unlike virulent New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, would like for God to exist? (This question was debated in the most recent Unbelievable? episode.)

In “The Idea,” a punk song that I first head in 1983, Adam Ant pointed to the problem: “I could be religious if/ A god would say ‘hello.’/ I could be religious if/ An angel touched my shoulder.”

Whether that’s true or not, it’s worth remembering that God doesn’t want mere belief in his existence—or even the intellectual assent to facts about his Son Jesus and his atoning death. Otherwise, we might say—perish the thought—that Satan himself could be an orthodox Christian! “You believe that there is one God,” writes the apostle, with sarcasm, “Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

Also, as is clear in John 3 (Nicodemus) and John 6 (the miraculous feeding), among other places in the gospels, plenty of people have a kind of faith in Jesus based on his miracles, but Jesus warns that this faith is insufficient. This gives the lie to the idea that if only people saw miracles today, they would repent and be saved.

Still, what would be the harm in God’s making his reality clearer to more people?

Here’s where Walls helps: Sure, if God made his presence more obvious, more people would seem to choose God and his way of salvation through Christ. But would it really be a choice? Or would it be coerced? If circumstances forced more unbelievers to acknowledge the reality of God and his gospel, their relationship with God might be based on something other than faith, hope, and love.

Remember: Paul says that faith and hope, alongside love, “remain” even after we know “fully, even as we are fully known.” They are permanent features of our relationship with God, both now and in eternity, not something we’re stuck with until we no longer see through the “glass darkly.” Whereas I might wish that I didn’t need faith, God doesn’t. And in his hiddenness, he’s forcing me to put it into practice.

All that to say, even in our finitude and sin, we have enough evidence to suggest that God knew what he was doing when he enacted his rescue plan for humanity.

But what do you think? Is God’s “hiddenness” a problem for you?

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1992), 100.