The Best Way to Handle Your Theological Confusion

John 6 has provided many Christians the basis for a number of doctrines, including transubstantiation, eternal security, and predestination. But I think Peter’s answer to Jesus gives all Christians possibly the best example of what to do when Jesus teaches you something that makes your head want to explode.

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”

John 6:66-67

Throughout our lives–and well into the next one–there’s always going to be things about God that we don’t understand. Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t make our ability to understand a prerequisite for being with him.

Instead, he asks if we’re willing to stay or if we’d rather leave.

And in the end, that’s going to be the most important question you can answer.

Yes, Actually, We Should Question God’s Justice

As soon as I saw that an article was exploring the subject of whether God ordered the Israelites to commit genocide, I knew that one of the defenses was going to be this: “God is perfect, and it’s wrong of us to assume that we have the right to judge Him.”

I know this because this is one of the standard answers for this question. It’s an easy way to shut down an uncomfortable inquiry. And it’s wrong.

The article was written by Justin Taylor, who uses a variation of the argument I mentioned above to answer the question of how God could order genocide. Taylor published his post on The Gospel Coalition website (where he also regularly blogs), and I can understand why they think God is justified in ordering the slaughter of the Canaanites. As Calvinists, they believe that God has divided mankind into two groups: those who are destined to receive the power to have faith in Christ and be saved, and those who are destined to remain in their sin and go to hell. (In shorter terms, you’re either “elect” or “non-elect”.) In this theological system, God sends people to hell for not having faith in Christ when He both knows that they lack the ability to have such faith and has the power to give them that ability but withholds it anyway. It’s as if God ordered a bunch of paraplegics to run a foot race and then got mad when they were unable to stand.

(I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either.)

But for this group, God is perfectly justified in refusing to give the non-elect the power to believe and be saved. They also appeal to Romans 9 in support of not only their particular understanding of predestination but also for their retort against anyone who questions it: “God is the potter, you are the clay, and He will fashion us as He will. Who are you to argue otherwise?”

It’s no surprise, then, that this retort would be repeated when they explore the issue of Canaanite genocide in the Bible.

Now, I’ve written on this subject before and argued that God’s orders were not only not ethnic cleansing but were also subject to change. God had no problem showing mercy to Canaanites who wanted mercy. Think of Rahab. Think of the Gibeonites. Both were spared by Israel without any sort of divine retribution for allowing Canaanites to live.

That said, it’s still a disturbing part of our Scriptures. It’s understandable why would we wonder how God could do this, especially in light of the God who has been revealed in the enemy-loving, cross-bearing rabbi from Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. But for folks like Taylor, such questions reflect a sinful mindset.

From the article:

It is commonplace in our culture to ask whether this or that was fair or just for God to do. But if you stop to think about it, the question itself is actually illegitimate. Merely asking it presupposes that we are the judge; we will put “God in the dock” and examine him; God must conform to our sense of fairness and rightness and justice—if God passes the test, well and good, but if he doesn’t, we’ll be upset and become the accuser. … To think otherwise is the ultimate act of arrogance, putting your own mind and opinions and conceptions as the ultimate standard of the universe.

I want to make three points in response to the argument that challenging God somehow puts us above Him. I’ll be responding specifically to the charge that to question God is somehow to make ourselves judge over Him. I haven’t decided whether I’ll respond to the rest of the post, but if you’re so inclined, you can read it in full by clicking the link above.

First, challenging God is biblical. Abraham argued with God in an attempt to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. (And Justin Taylor ought to be familiar with this, as he quotes from Genesis 18 in his blog post.) Moses prevented God from destroying the Israelites after they worshiped the golden calf. The psalmist wondered why God has forsaken him, and Jesus himself raised this question right before he finally succumbed to torture and crucifixion.

Second, our sense of justice may be flawed but it has not been destroyed. Taylor speaks of two different kinds of justice here: our sense of justice and God’s sense of what’s right. Now, let me be clear: our sin has absolutely affected our ability to love what’s right and to do it. There’s no question about that. What I have an issue with is the idea that our sin has so corrupted our sense of justice that we have no understanding of what “justice” means.

If we are no longer capable of understanding what’s just, then how is God able to expect us to abide by a system we have no hope of understanding, let alone fulfilling? If you’re going to argue that human beings deserve to be judged for failing to live up to God’s moral code, then you have to also believe that human beings are able to understand that moral code in the first place.

Again, that doesn’t mean we understand perfectly, but it does mean that we understand enough to the point that God can hold us accountable for what we know and how we act. So when people raise objections to these difficult parts of the Bible, it’s not because they’re operating from a sense of justice that is completely foreign to God’s. It’s because our sin has not so destroyed the divine image in us that we are unable to perceive justice and evil.

Third, people object to this presentation of God because it is so different than Jesus. And if you’re going to insist that Jesus has given us the best and fullest idea of what God is like–as Christian orthodoxy has always claimed–then this one is big. Jesus said that peacemakers are blessed. He commanded us to love our enemies. He condemned any attempt by his disciples to use violence against their opponents.

Now, it’s true that this same Jesus also cleared out the Temple–with a whip, of all things–but this appears to have been less about kicking someone’s ass than it was about establishing his messianic credentials and exposing the corrupt religious system in Jerusalem for what it really was.

There’s the passage in Revelation in which Jesus returns, covered in blood, and destroys the hostile armies with the sword coming out of his mouth. But we also know that the two-edged sword in Revelation has also been called the word of God in other places. So is Revelation using some graphic imagery to describe the triumph of God’s message over the nations, or is the author actually suggesting that Jesus is going to put a sword in between his teeth and violently swing his head back and forth until he’s killed everyone who hates him? It’s also worth pointing out that the blood on Jesus’ robes is present before this battle takes place, which is probably the author’s way of reminding us that the victory Jesus won was won by the shedding of His own blood.

Those are two of the more common passages people refer to when trying to prove that Jesus, as God, wouldn’t have had a problem with slaughtering every single Canaanite. I hope it’s become evident at this point that those two passages–which don’t even really back up the argument that people think they do–don’t invalidate everything else Jesus told us about our relationship to our opponents.

I should also saying something else. I’m not making this argument because I just don’t want to accept what the Bible says about God but because the Bible and church tradition are firm in their insistence that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh, who manifested His love for sinners (yes, I believe in the existence of sin, too) by dying on a cross for our sins and defeated death by rising from the dead. Those same Scriptures also give us a picture of what Jesus was like, and when that picture appears to contradict the portrait of God that we see somewhere else, then we have every right–indeed, the responsibility–to ask why that is.

Are we putting ourselves in the position of judge when we question God? Hardly. If you’ve going to take Jesus and his Scriptures seriously, then you’re going to have lots of questions as you learn how to do so. Questions about faith, questions about God and why He doesn’t always appear to act like Jesus did.

You’re going to have questions and, following in the tradition of Abraham, Moses, the psalmist, and Jesus himself, you need to ask them. Besides, how will you ever learn if you don’t?

Because ‘The Walking Dead’ Only Airs on Sundays

Here’s my next fictional adventure:

World War Z

I found this for a dollar at a used-book sale. Hoping it’s worth it!

(I’m still not sure about the movie version, though.)

Want to Know What’s Sadder than the ‘Left Behind’ Remake?

People actually think the new movie is based on (future) true events.

Here’s the newly released poster, which I still have a hard time believing isn’t part of some elaborate hoax:

Left Behind poster

(H/T AV Club)

For Those of Us Who Build Tombs for the Prophets

I don’t know what’ll come out of Pope Benedict’s resignation, although I suspect that part of the conversation in coming weeks will revolve around the evils of the Catholic Church.

Some of those criticisms are well deserved. Others will be based on distortions of what’s happened in the past. I’ve been trying to think of what I might want to say in light of recent events, and I think my mind settled on this idea: it may not be best to speak too much at all.

Here’s why:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets’. Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town …”

Matthew 23:29-34

In a pretty kick-ass moment, Jesus condemns the religious authorities for building tombs for the prophets who were murdered by their forefathers. This is ironic, in light of their continued rejection of the Son of God, of whom those prophets spoke.

What Jesus is saying is, and how I think this is relevant to our discussion, this: it’s easy to criticize the mistakes of past generations and insist that you’re not like them, all the while ignoring your complicity in modern crimes.

I think that’s true of my generation. Evangelicals are very good at condemning past Christians for the horrors of the Crusades, the Inquisition, hunting witches and the like. They’re very good at describing what they see to be corruption in the papacy, all the way down through the local priest. They’ve excelled at criticizing doctrines they may not have taken the time to understand**.

And, since we’re on the subject, they’re quite adept at thinking that “Christian history” only means what happened in Europe, but that’s for another post.

But those same evangelicals are much less prone to talk about the mistakes of our generation. We can blame the line of popes for any number of problems, but we clam up when it’s time to measure evangelical leaders by the same standard. Instead, let’s talk about past Christians and their mistakes–because then we can feel better about not doing what they did.

And in the meantime, we won’t worry about Bryan Fischer, who has repeatedly and without apology slandered gay people.

We can feel better about standing aside when Mark Driscoll claims that God gives him visions of people having sex. (Some people may object to my including Driscoll here. If that’s you, then I’d respond by saying that there is something seriously questionable about the ministry of a man who believes God sends him mental porn. If anyone other than Driscoll had made the claims in that video, wouldn’t you consider that to be a huge red flag?)

If we’re reluctant to call out our treasured leaders, then we’re even more hesitant to measure ourselves by the standard that we measure the Catholic Church, the popes, and, well, most people who don’t belong to our tribe.

I can think of a few spiritual discussions I’ve had with people, many of which eventually turn to the topic of what’s wrong with the church. More often than not, most of us–myself included–are all too eager that churches build enormous structures for themselves, wasting money that could’ve gone to the poor, and don’t do anything to engage people who don’t share our faith.

And while those things are true in many (but not all) cases, you know what I’ve never heard in those conversations?

I never hear what’s wrong with us. With me. With you. And I’m rarely, if ever, willing to volunteer what’s wrong with me.

I can accuse churches of being callous toward the poor; maybe you can, too. But can’t remember the last time I was a part of a spiritual conversation in which we resolved to give up going to Starbucks so we’d have more money to give to people in need. I know this hasn’t happened for me (and, consequently, this is why some of the most convicting passages in Scripture for me have to do with helping those in need). I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m only pointing out that, in my experience, these conversations tend to focus on what’s wrong with everyone else.

So I think Jesus is absolutely right, both about the Pharisees of his time and the religious folks of ours.

We build tombs for prophets while ignoring their prophetic voices.

Most Christians believe that sin exists (and those who don’t, should). I think every generation that has claimed to follow Jesus has always had an easier time recognizing Original Sin in others but never in themselves. It’s always going to be easy for a generation to believe it’s better than its predecessors; that won’t ever change. However, Jesus warned us against judging others while ignoring our own problems.

I’m not saying that Pope Benedict should be immune from criticism (or, for that matter, legal action). Rather, we may want to take a long hard look at ourselves before we eagerly point out the cracks in everyone else.

** I feel the need to say this, because I’m almost certain that we’re going to see distortions of Catholic teaching in the near future, if not already: I know of no Catholic who thinks that we worship Mary or the pope. I know of no Catholic who thinks that grace comes because you’ve earned it through good works. From what I’ve seen, claims to the contrary are distortions of what the Church actually teaches.

Review: Brazos Theological Commentary on Luke

Luke is my favorite of the four gospels, so when I was given the chance to review a commentary for Baker Academic, there was only one volume that was an obvious choice.

The obvious choice turned out to be a great one.

Written by David Lyle Jeffrey, this part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is a fantastic resource for someone who’s looking to deepen their study of Scripture while not getting bogged down with the issues that are crucial to scholars but aren’t as pressing to lay readers. With the exception of the introduction, this volume delves immediately into the text, covering all 24 chapters of Luke’s work by compiling the writings of modern and ancient scholars on the gospel.

That’s where the Brazos series draws its strength: it draws from Catholics and Protestants alike. Where on one page you might find a quote or paraphrase from N.T. Wright, on the next you’ll read the insights of Pope Benedict (or one of his predecessors). This was a huge draw for me, not to mention a pleasant surprise. Many writers fall into the trap of drawing only from sources that agree with them. Brazos’ commentary series draws part of its strength from its willingness to admit that the Holy Spirit hasn’t given insight only to one group of Christians.

For that matter, the Spirit hasn’t given insight only to modern scholars or writers, which is why a host of early church fathers and other significant Christian figures in the early centuries find their works included here. Augustine is an obvious choice, as is John Chrysostom’s golden-tongued writings. John Calvin, Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, Justin Martyr, Peter Lombard, Gregory the Great, and Eusebius are just a few of the ancient, medieval, and Reformation-era thinkers referenced.

At not even 300 pages, Luke still packs an intellectual and theological punch. To start with this volume, I decided to go first to my favorite story in Luke’s gospel: the story of the prostitute who barged into a Pharisee’s party and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears. This has always been a powerful passage about forgiveness for me, and I wanted to know what light Brazos might shed on it.

Jeffrey draws on scholarship to note that Simon the Pharisee’s party had a Hellenistic bent to it and that Jesus had been invited to have a “philosophical discussion of a sort to tease out the character of his teaching or even of the nature of his evidence claims concerning his identity” (112). The section also includes a discussion on that era’s view on sin as a debt (and a shifting away from the perspective of iniquity as a burden) as well as contrasts the actions of Simon and the woman: the prostitute managed to show Jesus proper hospitality, in the home of a Pharisee who had evidently refused to do so (114).

Other sections of the commentary prove just as enlightening. In the section on John the Baptist’s teaching, Jeffrey notes that John’s reference to not being worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal was a marital statement. Loosening a sandal strap is a custom found in the Old Testament—specifically, in the stories of Judah and Tamar and Ruth and Boaz. In the case of the latter, Boaz becomes Ruth’s kinsmen redeemer after the man who had the legal obligation to marry her took off his sandal and gave it to Boaz, who at that point had no barrier to marrying Ruth. It’s as if John is saying that he is not worthy to be Israel’s redeemer. (Remember, a good number of people in the gospel had wondered if John, not Jesus, was the anointed one from God who would save them.) Jeffrey includes insight from Gregory the Great, who on this passage wrote:

“John denounces himself as unworthy to loose the latchet of Christ’s shoes; as if he openly said, ‘I am not able to disclose the footsteps of the Redeemer, and do not presume to take unto myself unworthily the name of bridegroom,’ for it was an ancient custom that when a man refused to take a wife her to whom he was obligated, whoever should come to her betrothed by right of kin was to loose his shoe” (Forty Gospel Homilies 6, cited in the commentary)

Regarding the parable of the prodigal son, Jeffrey quotes from Ambrose, who sees the younger son’s decision as resulting in a loss of freedom:

“For what is more afar-off than to depart from one’s self, to be separate not by country but by habits. For he who severs himself from Christ is an exile from his [true] country and a citizen [only] of this world”.

I also found the allegorical interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan worth the read:

“For Origen, as for Ambrose and Augustine after him, we can see in the poor traveler, descending from Jerusalem, the visio pacis, toward Jericho, a city identified with the sin of the world, a kind of everyman figure, embodying in his descent from divine intention the universal journey into the fallen world of the first Adam. On this reading the robbers are the demonic assaults and depredations of sin, which indeed leave us bereft of substance and half dead. The priest and Levite are figures for the law and the prophets, or for the establishments of religiosity, which do not minister to our condition. Christ is the good Samaritan, the one regarded as outcast by these religiously proper persons and institutions but who actually seeks and saves the lost at his own expense” (151).

That’s just a sampling of what this volume offers, and if you’re looking to go deeper into Luke’s gospel—and use that theological treasure to grow in your faith—then I’m hard-pressed to find a reason why Brazos’ commentary on Luke wouldn’t be on your shelf.