Archive for the ‘God’ Category

Might Makes Right

April 16, 2009

I want to defend the thesis that might makes right.  Normally, we recoil in horror from that kind of statement because we see in it no way to check tyrrannical rule.  Those who are strongest gain power and use it to oppress the weak, and so far as the “might makes right” philosophy is concerned, they are ethically justified because, after all, might makes right.  The strength of the strong is their ethical justification. 

I am not referring to that kind of scenario when I say that might makes right.  I am referring to a greater might and a greater right.  I am referring to God and his relationship to what is right and wrong.  There are two propositions that I deny about God’s relationship to ethics:

(1) God is righteous because he conforms to a standard outside of himself.

(2) Right and wrong are determined by God’s will arbitrarily with no essential connection to his being. 

The first proposition places ethics above God; the second proposition divorces God’s will from his character.  Neither are correct.  That which is right derives its “rightness” from God’s own character, so that there is no standard above God, and yet what is right is not determined arbitrarily.  But here is the fundamental truth about God’s character: God’s supreme regard is for himself; therefore, that which is right is defined as right in relation to him. 

Think about it for a moment.  We all know it is wrong to murder.  But why?  Secular humanists recognize, at least to some degree, the value of a human being, and their ethical reflection generally flows from that.  Thus, whatever promotes the well-being of human beings (unborn human beings excepted) is right, and that which violates or harms a human being is wrong.  Thus, murder is wrong, but certain sexual acts between consenting adults is perfectly fine, so long as no other human being is violated or harmed. 

But believers know there is more to the story than that.  Believers know that the supreme reference point for all ethical reflection is God himself.  Murder is wrong because it assaults a creature made in God’s image who reflects God’s glory.   Consenting adults are not the only parties to take into account when considering the morality of certain sexual arrangements; the will and design of the Creator must be considered supreme. 

Why is God the supreme reference point for what is right and wrong?  Because he is God.  As such, he is exalted above us.  He transcends our limitations.  His essence is the standard of all that is right and good precisely because he is the self-existent, sovereign Lord of all.  Might truly makes right, in this sense. 

So why do we recoil at the idea that might makes right when applied to the human sphere of ethics?  It is because we recognize that only God is God, and therefore any human being who usurps the divine prerogative has committed high treason, the greatest of all sins and blasphemies.  The person who claims the right to determine right from wrong out of his own power has already removed God as central reference point and has appointed himself to that position.  What we recognize as so horribly wrong in this kind of situation is not the fact that might makes right; it is, rather, that someone whose might is infinitesimal compared to God’s is trying to assert himself over God.  The problem is not so much the idea that might makes right; it is the idea that inferior might makes right. 

This, I submit, is precisely the problem with abortion.  The woman who chooses to kill the human being inside her womb has made a decision based on the ethical consideration that she is the primary reference point.  What benefits her the most is the ethical course of action.  And why is that?  Because she is more physically and mentally developed than the child.  She has a life history to speak of.  She has the power to assert her will.  The baby, lacking these qualities and the strength to withstand (or even protest) her attacks, has no ethical standing.  The woman’s might makes her right.  Yet ironically enough, the one who is mightiest in this situation has already conferred value on the unborn child, and he will not allow that blood to be spilled in vain.  His might will, one day, make all things right.

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Open Theism and the Nature of Truth: An Unsolved Problem

March 6, 2009

Open theism, the view of God that claims that he does not know many things about the future (primarily the future choices of free agents), faces a number of theological problems.  One problem that it faces that I have not seen explored anywhere in print is the problem of its ramifications for the nature of truth itself. 

What is truth, in its absolute sense?  I would expect that almost all Christians would agree that absolute truth corresponds to what God knows.  Our grasp of the truth is limited by our finitude, by our perspective, and by sin, and there have been endless debates about whether and to what degree truth can be known by human beings.  But for Christians, there does not seem to be much of a debate about God’s knowledge of the truth.  He has a “God’s eye” viewpoint on everything, and thus truth is nothing other than what he knows.  We have genuine knowledge only when what we know corresponds (not perfectly, though partially) to what he already knows.

Open theism runs into a massive problem here because the God of open theism cannot see everything at once.  He does not know how the future will unfold.  Open theists are careful to argue that he knows everything about the past and the present, but this is a hollow claim, because every event of the past and of the present cannot be known exhaustively unless it is known in relation to everything else, including the future.  God cannot have exhaustive knowledge of World War II, for example, because the full ramifications of that event have not yet played out before him, nor will they until the end of history.  Thus, not only is God’s knowledge of the future severely limited, so is his knowledge of the past and of the present.

And this deals a huge blow to the idea of truth itself.  In the open theist world, not even God has a “God’s eye” viewpoint, and thus there is absolutely no objective perspective on anything.  There is no such thing as absolute truth, for nothing can be known in the fullness of its relation to everything else.  The problem of perspectivalism that postmodernism has raised for us, leading to skepticism about knowledge itself, is now not just a problem for us; it’s a problem for God too, for even God is limited by his own perspective!  The logical outcome of open theism is nothing other than the denial of truth itself. 

Steve Wellum, a theology professor at Southern Seminary, told a story one day in class about how, when he was doing his doctoral work at Trinity, he took a trip up to Canada to interview Clark Pinnock about this very question.  He said Dr. Pinnock had never considered this issue before and had no answer for it.  As far as I have read, neither Dr. Pinnock nor any other open theist has addressed this problem.  It remains an unsolved issue for them.

Read This Book

December 13, 2008

I first met George Damoff when I took his class, “Man and the Environment” at East Texas Baptist University in the year 2000.  Although it was a science course, I remember Mr. Damoff having more of an impact on my theology, so deeply was he committed to the authority of Scripture and the supremacy of God. 

I subsequently came to find out that his wife, Jeanne, shares those same commitments.  And at some point I also learned about a tragedy that the Damoff family had endured a few years earlier when their oldest son, Jacob, nearly lost his life in a drowning accident.  The Damoffs are still on a long road toward recovery with Jacob, but the progress he has made to this point goes far beyond what most of the experts predicted, and the impact that Jacob’s story has had on the community of Marshall, Texas, has been amazing.

Now that impact is spreading.  Jeanne is a gifted writer, and she has published Jacob’s story in a book entitled Parting the Waters: Finding Beauty in Brokenness (Enumclaw, WA: WinePress, 2008).  It is available through Amazon.  Buy it.  Read it.  Today.  (Well, you probably can’t read it today, but you can buy it).

What I love most about this book is its God-exalting theology.  It shines through on every page.  Jeanne doesn’t try to “get God off the hook” for Jacob’s accident, the way so many misguided theologians do today any time a tragedy happens.  She exhibits a deep trust in a God who is completely sovereign and who permits suffering in the lives of his children for a purpose.  We do not, and cannot, know the full extent of that purpose in Jacob’s suffering.  God has not revealed that to us.  But he has revealed the truth about himself, the truth that he has not relinquished one ounce of control over the world he made.  And in that truth we rest, even when we do not understand. 

This book kicks God-belittling theologies like Open Theism in the teeth, simply by ignoring them.  Nowhere does Jeanne indicate that a redefinition of God’s sovereignty appeared on her radar screen as a theologically satisfying explanation for the sufferings her family was enduring.  And to my mind, as one who has endured a similar experience in my own family, there is no deeper or greater comfort than knowing that every tragedy we encounter has been foreordained by God for his glory and our good.

A New Kind of Pacifist

May 13, 2008

I am not a pacifist.  I don’t see how pacifism squares in any way with Genesis 9 or Romans 13, two passages that clearly indicate that God has delegated a measure of authority to certain people to use violence in order to restrain evil in society.  A denial of this authority results in a failure to employ one of God’s primary means of keeping sin in check, and the results of such a failure would be disastrous.

Having said that, I do want to say that I have a great deal more respect for the pacifism of old than I do of the new form of pacifism that has arisen in recent years.  Historically, Christian pacifists have grounded their opposition to violence in their affirmation that vengeance, expressed in terms of violent judgment, belongs only to God.  The reason we do not take up the sword is because the sword belongs to God, not us.  I see much merit in this view, and I believe in the realm of personal ethics, it is right on target (see Romans 12:19-21).  The place where this view goes wrong is in its failure to recognize that God wields the sword in part through the state, an authority he has ordained for the purpose of punishing evil and rewarding good (Romans 13:1-4). 

But the new pacifism makes a different argument.  Instead of saying that the sword belongs to God, not us, the new pacifist says that the sword belongs to no one.  Violence is inherently immoral, no matter what the context.  I don’t know the philosophical roots of this view, but I can say that it has no place in the historic teaching of the church (or, for that matter, in Scripture).  It has a lot more of Rene Girard in it than Jesus. 

Brian McLaren, in his most recent book Everything Must Change, espouses what sounds like the new pacifism: “Many of us have been increasingly critical in recent years of popular American eschatology in general, and conventional views of hell in particular.  Simply put, if we believe that God will ultimately enforce his will by forceful domination, and will eternally torture all who resist that domination, then torture and domination become not only permissible but in some way godly.”  Again, he writes, “The eschatological understanding of a violent second coming leads us to believe (as we’ve said before) that in the end, even God finds it impossible to fix the world apart from violence and coercion; no one should be surprised when those shaped by this theology behave accordingly.” (I do not have a copy of the book; I am quoting from an article that quotes from the book.  If it turns out that the article has totally distorted McLaren’s meaning by quoting him out of context, and that he doesn’t mean what he appears to say in these snippets, then I will retract these comments). 

McLaren’s error here is in thinking that whatever God does is okay for us to do.  Those who believe that God acts violently will pattern their behavior accordingly and will see violence in the human realm as a godly pursuit.  But that is simply not the case.  The absurdity of his argument may be shown with a human analogy.  Suppose a group of police officers receive knowledge about a meth lab in their jurisdiction.  At a particular time when they know the operators of the lab are at home, they bang on the door, identify themselves as the police, and demand to be let in.  When the perpetrators refuse to comply, they kick the door in and come in with guns drawn.  Still finding the perpetrators resistant, they wrestle them to the ground and forcibly cuff them before locking them inside their cars and driving them to the local jail. 

Now suppose that a mother with two small sons who lives across the street witnesses the whole episode.  What is she going to say?  If she plays the role of McLaren, she would say this: “I can’t believe the police acted so violently.  If my sons grow up in a world where this kind of violence is acceptable, they will feel that they have an obligation to invade the property of others, point loaded guns at them, and then wrestle them to the ground and bind them.”  But of course, no sensible person draws that conclusion!  The reason ordinary people don’t have a right to do that kind of thing, as everyone knows, is because the police are the ones who do that kind of thing.  The moment private citizens begin acting like police officers, vigilante justice takes over, and there is no more justice or stability in society.  Sensible people know that copying the actions that police are uniquely authorized to perform is wrong and illegal. 

In the same way, copying the actions that uniquely belong to God (and to those whom he has authorized specifically, i.e., the state) is likewise wrong.  The primary reason why I will not act violently toward those who persist in unbelief is because I know that is God’s unique prerogative, to be carried out in his way at his timing and discretion.  It is not because violence is inherently wrong.  If McLaren and the other new kinds of pacifists really believe that violence has no place in Christianity, then they will have to revise virtually every doctrine of the faith, especially the atonement.  But I guess they have already done that anyway.  After all, “everything must change.”    

Summing up on Creationism and Science

October 3, 2007

After writing my last post on this subject, I thought up a quick way to express my approach to scientific questions surrounding the age of the earth.  Here it is, in one sentence:

Because the act of creation was a miracle, the origin of the universe cannot be measured according to the same laws that are used to measure phenomena in the natural order of things as they exist now.

Think about that for a second.  What is a miracle?  I define a miracle as an extraordinary intervention of God that pertains to creation and quite often violates natural, scientific regularities (or laws, if that is your preferred term).  I say miracles “quite often” violate scientific laws because they do not necessarily do so in all cases.  The locust plague on the Egyptians was a miracle, but there is no reason to suppose that it violated any natural laws.  God simply providentially ensured that an extraordinarily large number of locusts would be gathered together on the land of Egypt at one time.  It is, of course, possible that God created these locusts ex nihilo and then sent them to Egypt, thereby including a law-violating component to the miracle, but Ockham’s Razor would lead us to the former conclusion that God providentially orchestrated natural phenomena to produce an extraordinary event within the ordered system of laws that he ordained over creation.  Nevertheless, we know that God’s extraordinary interventions quite often ignore natural laws and therefore would not be subject to the same kind of scientific scrutiny that regular events would be subject to (I have repeatedly mentioned Jesus’ turning the water into wine, which is only one of a host of examples I could cite). 

Was creation a miracle?  Surely every Christian would agree that it was.  Is it reasonable to suppose that it was a miracle that bypassed natural laws?  Everywhere the Bible claims that God created by the power of his Word alone, and that to me suggests clearly that creation was a miracle that occurred outside natural processes.  In fact, the creation of this world would have involved at the same time the ordering of the world under the scientific laws that govern it.  Therefore, even the laws themselves were “created” at that time as well. 

I conclude, therefore, that if we approach creation as a miracle, we should actually approach it as a miracle, meaning that it is something that God must interpret for us, not something we can claim to understand apart from his revelation.  I am not advocating the complete overthrow of science.  Science has an important role to play in our understanding of the world as it now exists and operates.  But I do not believe autonomous human reason alone can discover how it all began.  It is much better to trust what God has told us about his own miracles.  It is high time for science to get a dose of humility before God.

What Does the Cross Mean?

August 17, 2007

Did the death of Jesus on the cross satisfy the wrath of God against sinners?  Did Jesus Christ bear the sins of his people such that he became a substitute in their place, receiving and exhausting in himself the punishment we deserved?  In recent years, many self-proclaimed evangelicals have answered these questions negatively.  The doctrine of penal substitution (that Christ bore the penalty of the Law as a substitute in our place, thereby satisfying the just wrath of God) has come under fire from many corners. 

A number of objections have been raised against penal substitution, and a number of answers have been given to those objections by proponents of penal substitution (see the new book Pierced for Our Transgressions for an exhaustive list of answers; it will be out in the USA in November).  In this post I merely want to offer a general reflection on what I believe is the often unspoken assumption behind many of the objections that are raised against this doctrine. 

I think, more often than not, people reject the idea of penal substitution because it makes God out to be so exacting.  He demands punishment for every misdeed.  He cannot make sinners right with himself apart from full satisfaction of his wrath.  A God who demands this kind of strict perfection does not seem like the God of Scripture who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  After all, he commands us to forgive others when they sin against us without demanding any form of payment.  Does he command us to do something that he himself will not do?  Isn’t it more compatible with love simply to sweep offenses aside and have done with this tedious legal business?

This line of thinking, whether pursued consciously or not, is one symptom of an age that has remade God in our image.  I have argued before that God does many things that we cannot do precisely because he is God and we are not.  In our human relationships, of course the person who forgives without payment demonstrates greater love than the person who demands some kind of restitution, especially an exacting restitution.  But the Bible does not command us to forgive just because forgiveness is grand.  Repeatedly, it gives a specific theological basis for our forgiveness of others.  And that basis is precisely that God is the one who exacts vengeance for sin, not us.  Our mandate to forgive is predicated on the fact that God is a righteous judge who will exact the full penalty for every sin, whether from Christ on the cross or from the unrepentant at the final day of judgment.  Either way, vengeance is not ours to pursue.  But this does not mean that the demands of God’s holy Law have been obliterated at a whim; it means that we do not have the right to press those demands–only God does.  Here are two biblical examples of what I am talking about:

Romans 12:17-19: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone.  Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath.  For it is written: ‘Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord.‘” 

On what basis did Jesus himself refrain from lashing out against those who abused him?  Peter answers that in 1 Peter 2:23: “When reviled, He did not revile in return; when suffering, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to the One who judges justly.”   

God demands perfection.  This has been a distinctive mark of Christianity for centuries.  Every other religion denies this tenet and ends up with some version of salvation by personal effort.  Other religions teach that if you jump through certain hoops, your good deeds will in the end suffice to overcome your bad ones, and you will find favor with God.  Perfection is not necessary, but being good enough is, and we have it in our power to jump through all the right hoops.  Christianity has always proclaimed otherwise.  The church has always proclaimed that the demand for perfection (James 2:10) rules out all hope of any of us ever attaining salvation by our own efforts.  And this is why Jesus Christ came for us–to satisfy the demand for perfection in our place.  He obeyed the Law and bore its full penalty against us, thereby upholding the justice of God even while lavishing us with the grace of forgiveness. 

The objection that penal substitution is incompatible with a loving God can only be sustained if God is brought down to our level and treated as though he is one of us.  I cannot demand that my wrath be satisfied against those who have offended me, but that is because I am not the creator and judge of the universe.  But if God is honored as God, who stands above us and whose holiness will not be compromised, penal substitution is the only means of atonement that could possibly answer our need. 

The Truth

August 8, 2007

If God has no wrath, the cross has no meaning.

The Wrath of God: Why It’s a Good Thing

July 17, 2007

I rejoice in the wrath of God.  I know that sounds strange, but careful thought reveals that there can be no other appropriate response for the Christian.  The wrath of God has been downplayed, denied, and deleted from Christian theology in many circles for a few hundred years now, but the biblical testimony to its reality will not go away.  C. H. Dodd, the famous New Testament scholar, persuaded many that the wrath of God according to Scripture is not a personal, divine response to sin but rather an impersonal process of cause and effect, whereby sin leads to some kind of punishment by natural means and not by any willed decision of God.  In this scheme, wrath has become a quasi-divine being in its own right, a mechanism put in place by God but not personally overseen by God, almost as though God has become Dr. Frankenstein, unable to control the monster he made.  While Dodd has done well to demonstrate that the God of Scripture is very different from the capricious gods of paganism, he has in the process created a sub-Christian understanding of God himself by denying that wrath is his personal response to sin.

I do not believe that wrath is an essential attribute of God.  In other words, God could still be God without ever being wrathful.  There are many possible worlds where God has no wrath.  One is a world where God never creates anything and, therefore, never confronts the problem of sin.  God did not have to create anything at all, and had he chosen not to, then there would have been no occasion for him to display wrath, for within the eternal fellowship of the Trinity there never would have been sin.  Another possible world where God has no wrath is one in which God does create moral agents, but these moral agents never sin.  Again, there would be no wrath in such a situation, and God would still be God.

So, while wrath is not an essential attribute of God (meaning he can be God without it), holiness is.  God cannot be God if he is not holy.  There is no possible world in which God is not holy, for holiness is of the essence of his Godness.  I hope the argument is clear so far.

Now, we must see how wrath and holiness are related to each other.  Wrath is an expression of God’s holiness with respect to sin.  God responds to sin in wrath because he is holy, and as a holy God, he abhors sin and must oppose it.  If God did not respond to sin in wrath, then that would compromise his holiness, and that would mean that all distinctions between good and evil have broken down and there is no ultimate hope for justice in the universe.  But God is necessarily holy.  If he is necessarily holy, then he is necessarily wrathful in a world where sin exists.  God does not have to show wrath in order to be God, but this can only apply in a world without sin.  In all possible worlds in which sin exists, God must show wrath.  This does not compromise the freedom of God, for what I am actually saying (through the heuristic device of possible worlds) is that God must always act in concrete situations in accordance with his holy character.  God’s wrath is his holiness with respect to evil.  Where evil exists, there must be wrath, or there is no holiness.  And this is a world where evil clearly exists.  Therefore, I rejoice in the wrath of God because it represents one aspect of his holiness in this world, without which he would not be holy, he would not be good, and he would not be just.  And if God is not holy, good, and just, then he is not God; he is not worthy of worship. 

Of course, the next thing to consider is the fact that I am a sinner, and therefore I justly fall under the wrath of God.  And this is where the cross comes in as the full display of the wrath of God against my sin, so that, in being saved, I am actually saved from God and for God.  Paul explicitly says that our salvation in Christ is from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9).  I rejoice in this salvation; I rejoice in the wonders of God’s grace.  But I will not belittle his holiness by pretending that my salvation has been accomplished by a laxity on the part of God with respect to his wrath.  God does not compromise his holiness; he does not compromise his wrath.  He has satisfied it fully for all of his people in the death of his Son.  To say otherwise is to compromise God’s holiness and to belittle the accomplishment of Christ on the cross. 

So I rejoice to preach God’s love and grace, and I rejoice to preach his wrath–not because I want any of my hearers to suffer it for eternity, but because I want to proclaim before all that God and evil don’t mix.