Posts Tagged ‘Unbelievable?’

“Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”

January 18, 2017

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A recent episode of the Unbelievable? radio program (and podcast), “How I Lost My Child but Kept My Faith,” featured Jessica Kelley, who describes the heartbreaking experience of losing her 4-year-old son to brain cancer. To cope with her son’s suffering, she adopted what’s often called a “warfare” view of human suffering, influenced by pastor and theologian Greg Boyd. As best I can tell, it’s a form of “open theism,” which limits the extent to which God knows the future and his power to change circumstances in our world.

Open theism is such a non-starter for me, on biblical grounds, I haven’t investigated it deeply: I’m not sure if Boyd would say that God limits his foreknowledge (if that were possible) or that God can’t know the future with certainty. Boyd’s concern, I think, is his mistaken belief that if God knows the future infallibly, this knowledge therefore determines it, thereby overriding human free will. I’ve heard him say that God can only know (whether by choice or by necessity) probabilities of events occurring—given every antecedent event happening at any given moment.

This seems crazy to me. Even fallible human parents can often know, with a high degree of certainty, what their child will do under a certain set of circumstances. Yet God can’t?

Besides, God’s foreknowledge does not determine. As William Lane Craig, among other apologists, has argued, while God’s knowledge of future events is chronologically prior to the events happening (obviously), it is logically subsequent to these events happening: God “sees” humans and other free agents (including angels and demons) making choices, and “what God sees” becomes the basis of his foreknowledge. God can intervene to change future outcomes as he sees fit without running roughshod over free will.

In other words, God factored in the free choices of human and angelic beings (including, in the case of humans, our prayers) when he created the world. He factored in the sin, evil, and suffering that would often result from these free choices. He factored in our human need for discipline and punishment. And he factored in the need for our world to be governed, as a rule, by stable physical forces. Whatever else God factored into this world that he created, he did so according to his good purposes and for his glory.

Therefore, having done so, we can be confident that what God causes or allows to happen right now is in accordance with his will: even—and I say this with fear and trembling—a 4-year-old dying of brain cancer. (I’ve written at length about the difference between God’s antecedent and consequent will, which might prove helpful. Click here for more.)

I find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty immensely comforting. But if you don’t, what’s the alternative? One Unbelievable? listener, “Wallace in Charleston,” puts it like this:

One question I would have liked to have asked Jessica, especially when she spoke of Jesus’ miracles of healing, is whether she believed God had the power to heal her son? Given her theological comments, it seems she would have had to answer no—”God didn’t have the power, because of these other wills and forces in the universe that, at least in my son’s case, were stronger than God’s.”

But think about the devastating implications of such an admission for Christian hope. How can I trust that a God who was powerless to heal my child will someday have enough power to raise him from the dead? How could such a God could ever accrue enough power to raise all the dead and create a new heaven and a new earth?…

I can sympathize with how Greg Boyd’s theology has appeared comforting to Jessica as she watched little Henry die, but I’m afraid that comfort comes at too high a price and has implications that are not comforting at all. Better to own the sovereign hand of God and say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Another listener, “Tim from Saskatchewan,” emphasized that we believe in God’s sovereignty because of scripture.

[Jessica] stated that most Christians start with the assumption that God is sovereign. But through her experience, she’s come to understand that God is not fully in control, but works on the side of good. She quotes John 10:10 to defend her position, which says Jesus came to bring life.

The issue I have is that Christians don’t assume God is sovereign: the Bible states it explicitly. Jesus didn’t come to make alive people feel better; he came that dead people may receive life. It’s impossible to read John 6 and not think that the Bible is clear that God is in full control of everything. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” The fact that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world [Rev. 13:8] shows that the immeasurably horrible suffering of the cross was part of God’s plan. He didn’t do the best he could; he did exactly as he planned.

I would only add that our belief in sovereignty is based on much more than John 6.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I like Jessica. I’m sympathetic with her. And I find her story deeply moving. I also agree that Satan and his evil forces are at work in our world, opposing God’s people and the work of God’s kingdom—possibly even causing the evil of brain cancer. By all means!

But if I were Justin Brierley, I would have asked her: Does God have the power to prevent Satan from causing this harm? If her answer is yes—and how could it not be if God has the power to create the universe and everything in it, including Satan himself—then the difference between God’s causing and God’s allowing the disease, while important, isn’t as great as it first appears. Her version of open theism hardly solves the “problem” of evil.

Does a good God allow “gratuitous” evil?

March 8, 2016

In the latest episode of Unbelievable?, Josh Parikh and Cory Markum square off over this question: Does the existence of evil presuppose the existence of God? In my view, the answer is obvious: The moment you call something “evil,” you are appealing to objective moral facts, which themselves depend on the existence of a Judge who defines what is good and bad. As Tim Keller argues in his masterful book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, in making an argument against God on the basis of the existence of evil, you end up “relying on God to make an argument against God.”[1]

If I were Parikh, the Christian debater, I would have exposed the sentimentality that atheist Markum depended on to suggest that evil is incompatible with God’s existence. He began by citing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which hundreds of thousands—disproportionately children—died in one fell swoop. Surely a good God wouldn’t permit this!

Parikh should have intensified the problem: In other words, if Markum is right, he doesn’t go far enough. By what logic does a good God allow not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a tsunami, but even the death of one person, for example, whose trailer park was struck by a tornado? Unless Markum can justify even one death, he’s neither helping nor harming his case by appealing to scale. Logically, multiplying the problem of one death from “gratuitous evil” adds nothing to the problem.

Besides, as C.S. Lewis points out in his masterpiece The Problem of Pain, no one suffers more than one death.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[2]

Years ago, I read an online debate between N.T. Wright and agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. When Ehrman made this inevitable appeal to what Lewis calls the “sum of suffering,” Wright pointed out his logical inconsistency. Ehrman never grasped the point, unfortunately. Because it is a good point…

Or it’s a bad point inasmuch as it works against us believers in the Christian God. Again, either we can justify one person’s death from so-called “gratuitous evil” or we can justify no one’s death from it. It’s that simple.

Later in the episode, Markum appeals to the massive scale of animal suffering as another spin on the argument. What about a baby bat with a broken wing who dies a seemingly gruesome death in bat guano by being eaten alive by creatures living in the guano?

How is this not a facile example of anthropomorphizing animal pain? By all means, nature is red in tooth and claw, but Markum’s argument only holds water if we ascribe human-like self-consciousness to the bat—as if the animal were thinking (paraphrasing the Carpenters song), “I’ve only just begun to live/ So much of life ahead…” While many animals experience pain, God has designed them such that they are unaware that they are themselves experiencing it. They’re not capable of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” They lack any awareness of regret, or remorse, or a sense of their own mortality—things that often makes human suffering so painful.

Again, Lewis tackles this question in his book. Other Christian apologists have done so more recently.

Besides, has Markum not heard the Disney song (by way of Tim Rice and Elton John) “The Circle of Life”? It’s good and necessary for the ecosystem that organisms in the guano feed on the baby bat. Right?

After all, when the cheetah attacks the antelope in the National Geographic special, we always feel awful for the antelope. But if we’re going to anthropomorphize, let’s anthropomorphize all the way: Let’s follow that cheetah as she feeds the antelope carcass to her cubs. Isn’t that sweet? (I’m a cat lover. I think it’s sweet when a house cat leaves a dead squirrel on the doorstep.)

Nevertheless, I agree with Parikh that the cross of Jesus Christ represents the worst evil the world has ever known. If God can redeem even that evil, then he can surely do the same with all lesser forms of evil. Suffering may be “gratuitous” in the sense that it isn’t necessary to fulfill God’s purposes, but it’s never meaningless—which is to say, it never happens outside of God’s providential purposes.

Does that make sense?

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

What Christian isn’t a creationist?

February 25, 2016

O.K., my headline is slightly tongue-in-cheek. I’m well aware that “creationist” is a technical term that means not simply that God designed and created the world in which we live, but that he did so in a way that is consistent with a particular interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2.

I almost wrote “he did so in a way that is consistent with Genesis 1 and 2.” But if I put it that way, then that would make me a creationist, and I don’t want to be one of those! I might be lumped in with the Ken Hams of the world. Never mind that Ken Ham knows a lot more about biology than I do (and nearly any other Methodist minister who shuns the label “creationist”), having learned everything I know from a ninth-grade textbook I only half-understood at the time. But if I reject Ken Ham then I’ll be one of those “respectable” kinds of Christians—wink, wink—who “knows better” than to take the Bible’s creation account seriously—and who is “smarter” than those bumpkins who call themselves creationists.

I bring this up on the heels of yesterday’s post because of a controversy surrounding Dan Walker, a popular television host with the BBC, who came out last week as—gasp!—a creationist! His condemnation in the news media was swift and severe. How can he be trusted to read news off a tele-prompter if he holds these beliefs?

Even many Christian op-ed writers were alarmed: “We’re Christians,” they assured the public, “but not that kind of Christian.”

Nevertheless, David Robertson, who frequently appears on the excellent Unbelievable! radio show and podcast, leapt to Walker’s defense with this opinion piece:

This may come as a shock to the British journalistic community but those who believe in God tend to believe that he created everything. The question – which apparently they have neither the intelligence or the courtesy to ask – is what kind of creationist is Mr Walker? There are Christians who are theistic evolutionist creationists, old earth creationists and young earth creationists. On the basis of one statement from a spokesperson, many journalists made the assumption that it was the latter that was being spoken of.

And why is this news at all? Who cares? He is a TV presenter! The only people who care are those who want to introduce American style culture wars into the UK, and who view creationism as a bogeyman which enables them to vent their anti-religious prejudice and feel self-righteous while doing so.

For the record, I am a creationist. I believe that creation happened according to Genesis 1 and 2. To believe otherwise undermines one’s belief in the authority of scripture—including the credibility of Christ’s own words. As for how it happened, I’m somewhat agnostic on the question: I would say that there are a number of faithful ways in which we can interpret Genesis 1-2. But people who are more literalistic on the question than I am are not my enemies, and I am not morally superior to them. In fact, I don’t disagree with Archbishop Cranmer, when he says the following (in response to the Dan Walker controversy):

Beyond scientific doubt, the earth is many millions of years old. Radiocarbon (and -uranium and -potassium) dating tells us that Bishop Ussher was wrong: the earth was not created in 4004BC. But don’t some creationists hold to the Apparent Age theory? Adam was created on the sixth day. On the seventh day, how old was Adam? 33 years or just one day? Forget whether he had a navel or not, you see the point: God reveals Himself through His created universe in very many and mysterious ways. It may offend against common sense, but the God who can raise a man from the dead is perfectly capable of creating trees with rings in them.

William Lane Craig does an outstanding job assessing various biblically faithful alternatives to interpreting Genesis 1-2 in this series (21 episodes!) of podcasts: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/s9

Do the four gospels reflect ideological “development”?

August 11, 2015

In the world of mainline Protestant seminary education, we take for granted the following “facts”: Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most “historical.” Since the understanding of Jesus as God developed over time, Mark portrays Jesus as more human and less divine than the other gospels. Matthew and Luke, written later, use Mark as a source for their own gospels, while also relying on a source they have in common, called “Q.” Inconveniently, this source—again, a taken-for-granted fact for us victims of mainline Protestant education—has managed to vanish without a trace.

While Matthew and Luke have access to other sources, unique to their respective gospels, neither is interested in telling a straightforward history. Rather, each has an ideological agenda to suit their particular audience. They freely change the historical data and invent stories and sayings of Jesus to suit this ideology.

John, meanwhile, written much later than the other three, portrays Jesus as nearly a superhero. It is by far the least historical.

And of course, none of the gospels was written by its attributed author; none is based on apostolic sources.

As you can guess, I now reject all of these highly speculative articles of faith. I’m happy to grant that Mark is the earliest gospel, but the truth is, as N.T. Wright points out, we don’t know for sure when the gospels were written—besides which, they were likely based on oral traditions that long predated them. (But even the consensus of critical scholarship now grants that John’s gospel was written within the first century; this wasn’t the case 50 years ago.) Also, there’s nothing at stake in believing that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark as a source, except… If they merely “copied” Mark, as so many critical scholars believe, why did they copy Mark so poorly?

I’m not talking about alleged changes they make to suit their agendas; I’m talking about differences in minor details that serve no ideological purpose—for example, did the four friends lower the paralytic through a thatched roof or tiled roof? Most neutral observers would say, I think, that these differences in details would be evidence of historians working with some degree of independence, relying on different sources or eyewitnesses.

All that to say, you can hear all the biases and clichés of mainline critical scholarship on full display in a recent two-part debate (here and here) on the Unbelievable? podcast between the famously agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian apologist Tim McGrew, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University.

McGrew’s wife, Lydia, herself a fierce apologist, has written lengthy responses to both debates on her personal blog. Earlier this year, however, she wrote this post debunking the “development” trajectory in the four gospels’ Passion narratives. Before offering her own evidence, she challenges her readers to pick up their Bibles and see for themselves if they discern this progression from “more human” to “more divine.” She concludes:

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as “making Jesus say” things he never said, portraying different “Jesuses” in a literary fashion, and “developing” Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus “develops” in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn’t so.

A mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. Love it!

It reminded me of a blog post that theologian Andrew Wilson wrote last year about another Unbelievable? debate, this time between two self-identified evangelicals, Peter Enns and David Instone-Brewer. Enns was defending a more critical approach to reading and interpreting the gospels. During the debate, Enns said the following:

I can see, for example, in the context of the Caesar-cult, that it makes perfect sense for Luke to have the Magi come, it makes perfect sense for me to have that there, because Jesus is the true king of the world. Or, you know, a virgin birth. Or, for Matthew, shepherds, right? For a God to come to the lowly, the unexpected, which supports (in my opinion) Matthew’s theology, which is summarised in the Sermon on the Mount: God is doing the unexpected … So could I see them making this up? Absolutely. It doesn’t mean they made it up, but I can see it, in terms of an ideology.

Notice any problem with Enns’s statement? Wilson did.

My concern here is not primarily with the obvious blunder, namely that it is Matthew (not Luke) who describes the coming of the Magi, and that it is Luke (not Matthew) who describes the visit of the shepherds; everyone makes mistakes. Nor is it with the fact that Enns says this in a discussion in which he stresses his credentials as a biblical scholar; even biblical scholars make mistakes, and it may well be that he kicked himself for this one after the programme. Nor is it with the idea that the evangelists deliberately selected and arranged their material to suit their agendas; that I take as axiomatic. Rather, it is the fact that even though Enns has got the details absolutely upside-down, he is still able to posit an “ideology” that could account for the Gospel writers “making this up.” He is so persuaded that the Bible is full of invented stories, written to support existing ideologies, that he sees them even when they don’t exist. (Richard Dawkins, interestingly, makes exactly the same point, with exactly the same error, in The God Delusion.)

The fact is, you can argue almost anything to be an ideological invention if you adopt this approach. Matthew made up X because God is doing the unexpected. Luke made up Y because of the Caesar-cult. John made up Z because, well, John. Once the rot sets in, no text is safe, no matter how innocent, and no ideologically-driven explanation is beyond plausibility, no matter how preposterous. As such, the only ideologically-driven invention here – though, as I say, I’m certain it is a genuine mistake – is that of Peter Enns, not Matthew or Luke.

In other words, once you buy into the hypothesis that the gospel writers were ideologically driven, this hypothesis is unfalsifiable.

We need an “intellectual conversion” concerning the truthfulness of scripture

July 11, 2015

wright_resurrectionJust yesterday, I was telling a friend about what I describe as my “re-conversion” experience—an evangelical re-conversion—that took place some time between my commissioning as a “probationary elder” in the United Methodist Church in 2007—when I was a theological liberal—and my ordination three years later.

I say “evangelical” because I became convicted once again about the complete truthfulness of the Bible. Over time, I came to believe in the infallibility of scripture. Today, I don’t even mind identifying as an inerrantist, since I don’t believe that God’s Word, when rightly interpreted in its context, contains errors.

One thing is for sure: this re-conversion began around the time I started this blog in 2009.

One of several formative events in my re-conversion was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s dense academic work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which loudly affirms, on historical, linguistic, and theological grounds, the bodily resurrection of Jesus. One question I asked myself at the time was this: If the Bible can be fully trusted in this most important matter, then why shouldn’t it be trusted in other matters?

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Given my personal history, I was convicted by the following words from Christian apologist and Oxford mathematician John Lennox on last week’s Unbelievable? podcast. He was giving a lecture about his new book, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism. I especially resonate with his words about being “intellectually converted” concerning scripture’s truthfulness—because this happened to me! These are not “nice little stories” detached from the “real stuff of life.”

We’re playing religion, ladies and gentlemen, if we think that five minutes looking at scripture is going to get us through life when we’re spending hours and hours developing a professional career. I know there are times of pressure at different times in life, but I do believe we have to wake up and be serious. You cannot influence the world if you’re not inwardly convinced of the truth of these things. And the only offensive weapon we’ve got is the Word of God that we don’t know it; we can’t use it.

And I think we really need, some of us, to be—and I mean this seriously—intellectually converted. Because we have scripture and it’s over here. Nice little stories: Daniel in the Lion’s Den. That’s not the real stuff of life.

And so many Christians… have marginalized scripture and marginalized a daily relationship with God. I mean, can we be utterly blunt? Many people in this audience are probably involved in one kind of Christian work or another. And I start talking to them, and things aren’t too good, and I discover that husbands are not praying and reading with their wives—haven’t done it for years. And if there’s no reality of God in our family life, how can we expect to be attractive to the world? We can’t!

John Lennox is my hero!

April 30, 2015

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I promise this will be my last Unbelievable?-related post for a while. In this episode, Oxford mathematics professor and apologist John Lennox debates atheist Lawrence Krauss, a physics professor at Arizona State University.

William Lane Craig debated Krauss in a series of three debates in Australia a couple of years ago. During at least one of those debates, Krauss resorted to juvenile tactics such as using a buzzer to interrupt Craig’s presentation. Frankly, I worried how the ever-congenial Lennox would fare, stylistically, in the face of Krauss’s aggressive antics.

Among other things, Krauss isn’t good at letting his debate opponents finish their sentences.

The verdict? John Lennox is my hero (and not just because he looks like my dad)! Sanguine, firm, and unfazed, Lennox adroitly handles every challenge and objection, while sounding as if he wants to give Krauss a bear hug! How does he do it?

I want to have that kind of poise when I argue! He inspires me.

(Tom Harkins, I think you’ll like this one!)

A YouTube video of the audio is embedded below.

Why does God allow evil? It’s not a mystery

April 28, 2015
Clay Jones debates the problem of evil and suffering.

Clay Jones debates the problem of evil and suffering.

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s widely read and discussed post about The Issue, which came by way of a debate on the Unbelievable? podcast, is this timely debate on evil and suffering, between Clay Jones, a professor of apologetics at Biola University, and atheist philosopher Richard Norman.

The discussion begins with Norman’s conceding that the logical problem of evil doesn’t hold. The logical problem, popularly formulated by David Hume, is this: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

No, Norman agrees that if God has good reasons for permitting evil—in spite of God’s goodness and power—then there is no logical problem. But, he says, the only justification that a Christian can give for those reasons is to appeal to mystery: we trust that reasons exist, but we don’t or can’t know what they are.

This appeal to mystery is very popular in mainline Protestant seminary: “Don’t even go there,” we’re told. “Don’t even try to explain evil and suffering. It’s all a mystery.”

Oh, please! I am weary of these platitudes. Aren’t you? We don’t want to be glib about it. But we can articulate some reasons, in general, for evil and suffering, even if we can’t say with certainty why God allows a particular instance of evil and suffering. While there are many things we can’t know about evil and suffering, this isn’t to say it’s a mystery as to why God allows them in the first place.

Be that as it may, in his defense of God’s goodness and power, Clay Jones doesn’t appeal to mystery:

We know why God allows evil. The Bible tells us, and I’m going to be presenting the biblical case for why God allows evil. But some listeners… may go, “Well, I don’t agree with the things taught in the Bible.” I understand that, but that’s an entirely different debate. If you want to know why the Christian thinks God is right to allow the evils he allows, then the Christian is going to have to appeal to the Bible. And the fact the skeptic doesn’t agree with that explanation isn’t relevant. They say, “Yeah, but I don’t agree with the Bible.” But that’s not the point. The Christian isn’t trying to defend a God the skeptic will agree with.

To convince the skeptic that the Bible is right about the God revealed therein is a different task, he says.

Here are Jones’s seven reasons that God allows evil:

  1. “God chose to create beings with free will. And it is impossible even for God to create free beings without allowing those free beings to use their free will wrongly.”
  2. God created humans with free will, warned them that death would follow as a consequence of using their free will wrongly. When they did so, God cursed the ground, enabling all kinds of pestilence, and then removed their access to the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life, “and we’ve been attending funerals ever since.”
  3. “Natural” evil—tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, cancers, etc.—is largely a result of living in a cursed world.
  4. Although God could intervene regularly to stop suffering, he wants humans to learn the consequences of rebellion and their own actions, which is life without his constant protection.
  5. Natural laws must work in regular ways if our actions are to mean anything at all.
  6. “The knowledge we are learning about the consequences of rebellion against God is preparing us to be fit citizens of God’s kingdom—where we’re going to have free will, but choose not to sin because we’ve learned that sin here is stupid.”
  7. “Those who learned that rebellion is stupid and trust Jesus will be given eternal life, and that eternal life—very important point—will dwarf our sufferings to insignificance.”

He goes on to caution that he would normally spend 24 hours unpacking each of these points.

I largely agree with each of these. I would emphasize in points 2 and 3, however, that the creation of free beings capable of rebelling against God extends to the spiritual realm, where free angelic beings also chose to sin. They have a causal relationship to natural evil in our world—even if we can’t say with certainty what that relationship is.

I also wonder to what extent so-called “natural evil” existed from the beginning—with the understanding that we humans ascribe “evil” to an otherwise neutral, natural event—and humanity’s expulsion from the Garden meant that they were now exposed to what was already in Creation.

In other words, could it be that life outside the Garden was always harsh, and the Fall meant that Adam and Eve were no longer protected from this harsh reality? If humankind had remained in a perfect relationship with God, God would have ensured that they not be caught within the path of a tornado, for example—not that the tornado didn’t exist. Do you see the difference? This is all speculative, of course, and it doesn’t matter for Jones’s argument.

Most of the debate centered on points 1, 4, and 5, which form the heart of the “free will defense.” Norman conceded that, to some extent, God couldn’t create beings with free will who couldn’t be free to misuse that freedom. Nevertheless, why couldn’t a benevolent and all-powerful God create a world in which my misuse of free will wouldn’t cause the suffering of others? Why not simply allow my sin to affect me and not others?

For one thing, Jones said, if we possess love for others, then other people’s suffering—even if they bring it on themselves—would cause suffering for the people who love them.

For another, if God intervened every time one person’s actions would harm someone else, God would be intervening in our world literally millions of times a day. What then becomes of a world governed by predictable natural laws? Point 5 would go out the window.

Yes, Norman said, but Jones was still thinking about life in this world. Couldn’t an omnipotent God have created another kind of world in which we don’t suffer consequences from other people’s evil actions?

When Jones challenged him to explain what that world would look like, or how it could be different from ours, Norman said that wasn’t his problem: he isn’t an omnipotent God. But there’s no logical reason why God couldn’t make such a world happen.

Perhaps, Jones said, but it couldn’t be world in which we are as free as we are in this one. And God wanted us to be as free as we are in this world. Even Norman conceded the point.

Jones’s defense is nothing short of brilliant. Listen for yourself, and I think you’ll agree.

The “affirming” word to Christians like me: “You have a message of death and I pray for your soul”

April 27, 2015

This week’s episode of Unbelievable, a podcast I praised a while back, hosted a debate on The Issue last week between Dr. Robert Gagnon, the foremost mainstream (and mainline Protestant) Bible scholar defending the church’s traditional doctrine on homosexual practice, and Jayne Ozanne, an evangelical Anglican revisionist on the subject, who came out as gay earlier this year.

I have often cited on this blog Gagnon’s seminal book from Abingdon Press, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, which defends the historic Christian position.

I linked to this debate on Facebook, inviting gay-affirming clergy colleagues and those in the infamous “Methodist Middle” (who, let’s face it, are often one and the same) to listen. I said: “Pay attention to the care with which each one uses scripture to make his or her case. Which side is more faithful to our Wesleyan understanding of the role of scripture in guiding our faith and practice?”

A friend commented that the affirming side was poorly served by Ozanne, who seemed unprepared to match wits with Gagnon on what the Bible actually says about homosexual practice. Why not have a gay-affirming Bible scholar go at it with Gagnon? Wouldn’t that be a fairer fight?

Two responses: First, Dr. Gagnon himself, who is a Facebook friend, pointed out that while he’s “happy to debate any biblical scholar, theologian, ethicist, etc. at any time at any place,” he can’t get anyone to do it any longer. “For the first 5-7 years after my first book came out, I could get debates. Then I went through them all and word spread. This includes Brownson, Gushee, and Vines, none of whom will meet me for a rigorous discussion of what Scripture says and how it is to be appropriated faithfully in our contemporary context.”

Second, the debate was useful because it lays bare the shallowness of the arguments upon which so many of our colleagues are willing to overturn the church’s unanimous, two-millennia verdict that homosexual practice is a sin. Ozanne, who mostly argues from personal experience, repeated many of the things I’ve heard from our colleagues. What Ozanne believes, they also believe.

If, like Ozanne, my “affirming” colleagues are unwilling to engage scripture on the subject in the same serious way in which Gagnon does, then what they are saying, in so many words, is this: “I don’t care what the Bible says: here’s what it means.”

In doing so, they have moved far beyond any Wesleyan, much less Protestant, understanding of the authority of scripture.

Around the 49:00-minute mark, Ozanne, unable to meet his arguments head-on, resorts to attacking Gagnon’s character and Christian faith.

Sadly, this feels familiar to me: In my limited experience defending the same doctrine that, at one time or another, all of my fellow clergy said they agreed with, even some of them have resorted to ad hominem attacks against me. That’s fine—sticks and stones and all that. But let’s call a spade a spade.

That’s what Gagnon does in the following exchange, and good for him. Please notice that Ozanne insinuates that something is spiritually wrong with Gagnon for having these convictions—convictions that I share. So his problem is also my problem—and Pope Francis’s problem, for that matter.

What is wrong with all of our souls?

In the following transcript, which begins at 49:04, after Gagnon has just finished citing gay-affirming Bible scholars who agree with him that the Bible’s witness against homosexual practice is unambiguous, Ozanne begins her personal attack.

OZANNE: Robert, I admire your certainty on everything, and I have to be honest, I frankly don’t care how many hundreds of pages people have written. I’m very much reminded of the ‘wisdom of the wise I will frustrate.’ For me it’s about the nature of God and his love for us.

I’m afraid your certainty that this is so wrong leaves no room whatsoever for giving life to people who, um, I thinking of a teenager who’s just committed suicide. I mean, you have a message of death, and you’re so certain about it, I pray for you and your soul. Because I think—I hope—that your listeners, Justin, will listen with their hearts about what they feel is truly happening here… And the ultimate thing is, what is going on in our spirits beforehand to try and help us interpret [what scripture says about homosexual practice].

And I would suggest the ultimate place to start is looking at what Christ has done for us, which is to ensure that in his death on the cross, there is nothing else that is needed to bring everyone into the kingdom

GAGNON: I think you’ve distorted and given a truncated version of the gospel, and I think that’s part of the problem with your whole picture. But I also want to address the fact that earlier you had somewhat of an ad hominem attack on me with regard to my certainty, which I think is inappropriate.

O.K., first of all, it may be that a particular case in scripture does have overwhelming evidence. So it’s then a kind of manipulative argument to say that your ‘certainty’ is a problem. Maybe it’s your lack of an ability to respond to the arguments in question, and then you lash out with an ad hominem attack at somebody—that it’s their ‘certainty’ that’s the problem. Maybe your problem is your inability to actually defend the position.

And then you have an overarching presentation of the gospel that seems to completely leave out the fact that Christ doesn’t just call us to get what we want. He calls us to take up our cross, to lose our lives, and to deny ourselves. That doesn’t, to me, sound like getting what I want, when I want, with whom I want.

[Crosstalk]

Let me finish my train of thought because you’ve interrupted me again… My train of thought is that you have a notion about what fullness of life is. And that fullness of life is not reflected in the gospel. Paul, on a regular basis, had a life that was much more troubling than yours, mine, or anyone else around here. Every day he would get up in the morning, he could be beaten by rods by secular authorities. He could be whipped forty lashes minus one in the synagogues. He could be stoned, and we’re not talking about drugs here. He was poorly sheltered, poorly clad, poorly fed. In constant anxiety for his churches.

By your token or definition of what a meaningful existence is, he should have been absolutely miserable, and blamed God every day of his life for the kinds of experiences he had—even beaten up en route to share the gospel without actually sharing it—what’s the point of that? Shipwrecked, et cetera.

His point is that he’s rejoicing, because as he’s carrying around in his body the dying of Jesus, the life of Jesus is being manifested in him. As he’s brought to the point of whether he’s even going to live the next day, as he talks about in 2 Corinthians 1, he is brought to the point of relying on the God who has raised Jesus from the dead.

“Unbelievable?” podcast unbelievably good

April 1, 2015

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I’m sure way behind the times on this, but I want to plug a podcast/radio show from the U.K. I only just discovered last week: “Unbelievable?” with host Justin Brierly, from Premiere Christian Radio. The show’s producers are interested in the same questions I am, and they approach them, as I do, from an evangelical perspective.

If I’ve blogged about an issue pertaining to Christian faith, their show has gathered leading Christian thinkers (of a variety of confessional and ideological perspectives) and non-Christian thinkers on all sides of the issue and debated it. For example, just a few weeks ago, I debated some of my readers over questions related to Christian pacifism. Here is an insightful recent discussion between Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas and just-war proponent Nigel Biggar.

If you think you’d be interested, you will be. Check it out! You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and other podcast services.

I will be blogging about some episodes in the upcoming weeks, including the Hauerwas-Biggar debate.