gospel response

I’ve always had a soft spot for soteriological Inclusivism, the theory of Christian ultimate salvation (sometimes expressed in different ways) that holds that some can or may be saved apart from an explicit congnitive act of conscious belief in Jesus.

Exclusivism insists on a personal response to the Gospel, but most forms of exclusivism make exception for those too young or perhaps lacking the (apparent) cognitive ability to make an (apparent) response to the Gospel.  These exceptions prompt Inclusivism’s concern for the fate particularly of “those who have never heard” the Gospel. But I wonder if the very notion of ‘those who have never heard the Gospel’ might be challenged by Scripture? Perhaps a Scriptural understanding of revelation, gospel, preaching, hearing and responding is different to at least some of our modern instincts? Perhaps some biblical language suggests that “the (G)gospel” has been preached to everyone; perhaps in a mode that escapes or transcends the modern mind?

It would be one thing to entertain such notions due to some discomfort or fear regarding communicating the gospel or having people not respond to it.  But it’s quite another thing if Scripture itself actually supports the notion. And whilst we don’t want to alter the Gospel to make it more palatable, we also don’t want to go beyond Scripture and ‘add’ requirements or barriers to God being able to work in ways we don’t understand.  Two relevant passages among others are: Romans 2:12-16 and 10:9-21; and another I recently encountered again is Hebrews 4:1-11.

In interpreting the texts, we have to keep the literary purposes of the authors in mind.  Both Romans and Hebrews are engaging with the early controversy around the attitudes of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians toward (among other things) the Jewish Law, common faith, and table fellowship. In Romans 2, the Jewish Christian readers have just had a surprising hard word given to them about their own failure to keep the Law, which has the result of putting them on even par with Gentiles.  Interestingly, the Gentles, even without having the Jewish Law, are nonetheless able to follow the ‘Law written on their hearts‘, which apparently not only accuses them when they live contrary to it (1:18-32), but also excuses them when they live according to it (2:14). This battlefield of hearing and obeying (or not!) seems to at times be public and visible, and other times private and ‘secret’ as Paul’s language suggests in 2:16 (‘God will judge men’s secrets…’).

Oh, sure, but some will say Paul is just getting the foundation of his
argument going in Romans; it’s only chapter 2! But, we have a similar tension in chapter 10, long after Paul has made his points about both the universality of Sin and the superabounding nature of Grace. Here is actually a favourite verse of
Exclusivists, where it is insisted that ‘faith comes by hearing’; when the Gospel of Christ preached and heard, believed and finally confessed (10:9-15). However, Paul does not finish there, but then goes on to contrast the unbelief of previous generations of Israel (long before Christ) with the Gentiles of old, who along with Israel apparently have indeed ‘heard’; the pertinent difference being that (‘all’) Israel did not accept the good news due to their disobedience, while the Gentiles were apparently ‘found’ by God who says ‘I revealed myself’ to them (10:16-21). The context of chapter 10, to state the obvious, is chapters 9 and 11, which all together form a rich tapestry of argumentation exploring the way that God remains faithful to the ‘old’ covenant with Israel, even when the church must have looked mostly Gentile at the time of writing. This is precisely the point the author of Hebrews makes in chapter 4; except only the negative criticism is made of Israel, for having ‘the gospel preached to them’ yet not combining that with ‘faith’.

The first key point in all of this is that the biblical authors here seem to be quite comfortable in describing ‘the gospel’ being known to people long before Christ; much like Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 will, in passing, assert that “the Rock that followed [Israel during the Exodus] was Christ.” The other point is that it seems those outside of God’s central and standard means of revelation (Law teaching in the Old; Gospel preaching in the New) have indeed had ‘the Gospel’ preached to them (Colossians 1:23); and their response, arguably in the New as well as the Old, is not always rejection. Indeed (clearly in the Old, and possibly in the New), when those on the ‘outside’ respond more obediently than those on the ‘inside’, the latter are humbled and (hopefully) brought to their knees again in renewed repentance; or (Paul hopes in Romans 9-11) ‘provoked to jealousy’ (and hopefully faith).

Similar themes appear elsewhere.  The Gentile King Cyrus was called God’s ‘anointed one’, who was moved by the Spirit to let Israel go home. The pagan Preist Melchizidek was the agent (not the recipient!) of blessing for Abram. And Jesus set the tone for his ministry with a rousing critique at Nazareth, making clear that God’s action was not limited to Israelites.

So could it be that God is at all times, all ways and in all places preaching the Gospel, through both public and ‘secret’ channels (one thinks of the many accounts of Muslims having dreams and visions of Jesus)? Could it be, as inclusivism suggests, that some of these people can respond to such preaching with at least some form of faith?

is ‘god’ the same ‘god’ as ‘god’?

You’ve heard it before: “Is God the same as Allah?” or “Is Allah the same as the God of the Bible?”

You’ve also probably heard both simple ‘yes’ answers and possibly simpler ‘no’ answers.  My response would be to answer with a question: “Is ‘god’ the same ‘god’ as ‘god’?

Words are incredibly slippery little animals.  ‘God’, of course, is an English word (used variously with lower or upper-case ‘g’) to refer to various kinds of deities or supernatural beings.  Origin, usage, context and other factors determine the meaning of a word.  Consider the word ‘cool’ in the following sentence: “Outside is cool.”  The word ‘cool’ could refer to a (relative) standard of temperature, or to an equally (or more so) relative standard of cultural interest.

The choice of the word ‘God’ has more to do with one’s culture and language than one’s religion.  I use the word ‘God’ as a Christian, and so does a friend of mine who is a Muslim sheikh.  Are there differences between Christian and Islamic theology?  Along with some similarities, yes of course there are differences.  Some cosmetic and cultural, and other deeply rooted into the heart of both religions.

So whilst ‘the God of the Bible’ and ‘the God of the Qur’an’ have both basic similarities and important differences, the flexibility of the term ‘God’ means that ‘Allah’ is indeed the ‘God’ of the Bible, in the sense that ‘Allah’ is the word used for ‘God’ in the Arabic Bible; just as it is the word for ‘God’ in the Arabic Tanakh (Judaism) and the Arabic Qur’an (Islam).  In Aotearoa (New Zealand), we might also say that ‘Atua’ is the God of the Bible, more particularly Te Paipera Tapu (the Holy Bible in Te Reo Māori).

You’d think that the English Bible, Tanakh and Qur’an would all use the English term ‘God’.  However, my parallel English-Arabic copy of the Qur’an has ‘Allah’ in it.  My understanding is that for Muslims, the Qur’an ceases to be the Qur’an when it is translated out of the original Arabic.  This special appreciation for the Arabic language (much like many Jews treasure the Hebrew language) may be related to the desire to use the term ‘Allah’, which is a transliteration of the original Arabic: له (‘Allah’).  Jehovah’s Witnesses also have convictions around God’s name, and use ‘Jehovah’ to translate the original Hebrew: יהוה (‘Yahweh’).

The insistence on using these terms are meant to protect the respect or accuracy that God deserves.  But even using the terms ‘Allah’ and ‘Yahweh’ do not guarantee either devotional respect or conceptual accuracy.

It is here that the authors of the New Testament, reflecting the earliest convictions of the earliest Church, use words that point us beyond concepts, titles or names, and toward the person of Jesus Christ.

In a mind-blowing moment in the gospel according to John, the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of saying he was greater than Abraham, the Patriarch of all Jewish patriarchs.  John, writing in Greek to Greek readers, records the response of Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  The Greek phrase ‘ego eimi’ translates as ‘I am’, and reaches back to the burning-bush moment of revelation in the Hebrew Tanakh or Old Testament (compare surah 28 verse 30 in the Qur’an) where Yahweh gave Moses the personal name ‘Yahweh’.  Passages John 1:1-18 and Philippians 2:5-11 speak of the person of Jesus, who was human, as also somehow being divine; the ‘Word’ who was God, or ‘equal’ with God.

For these New Testament authors, knowing God is not a matter of getting the right word in the right language.  ‘God’, rather, can be known because God showed up in, through, and as the person of Jesus, who made ‘the invisible God’ visible.

All of our ideas about ‘God’ need to bow to the God revealed in Jesus – or as John V. Taylor words it, “the Christlike God”.  All of us, even those of us who believe in Jesus, tend to see God as we want to see God, rather than how God has revealed ‘God-self’ in Christ.

So then. Whether you use the term ‘God’, ‘Allah’, ‘Atua’, ‘Jehovah’, ‘Yahweh’, or something else: Is your ‘god’ the same as “the Christlike God”?

an epistemic prolegomenon for theology

Even given the doctrine of God’s self-disclosure or revelation, and given the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience)… You will never, in your lifetime, know everything about God.

Or… see the doctrine of ineffability.

knowing God

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Galatians 4:8-9)

There is a lovely tension in Christian epistemology between our ‘knowing God’ and being known by God (both of which, to be clear, are about an interpersonal kind of knowledge, not about simply knowing an infinite quantity of ‘facts’ about God or us).  One of the central announcements of the NT is that Jesus has revealed God in not only a fresh, unexpected way, but also in a full (and thus final) way.  God can at last be known.

But this knowledge of God in the face of Christ does not catapult humans into a state of omniscience.  “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”, asks Scripture elsewhere.  And in the passage above, Paul suggests that the point is not our knowledge of God, but God’s knowledge of us that matters.

There is continuity and discontinuity here with the knowledge proper to the natural sciences.  Continuity in that in both cases, reality often has to surprise us for us to ‘get it’.  It’s often not what we expected it to be.  Truth has that ring to it.  But it also has discontinuity in the obvious sense that nature does not and cannot ‘know us’ as we know one another – let alone as we can be known by God.

parallel

Before we knew that galaxies tend to form the familiar fractal shape, we perhaps should have rightly expected this from the persistence of this pattern in the parts of nature we do observe.  Indeed, I’m curious if we will observe a fractal pattern in sub-atomic phenomena at some point in the future (or if we already have? any particle physicists stumbling upon this post?).

But more generally than speculations about the universality of the fractal form, it seems an obvious though oft-neglected fact (perhaps precisely because of its obvious nature) that in both our speculations about physical  phenomena we have yet to see, and our descriptions and language employed of that we do see, our scientific vocabulary is restricted to borrowing from pre-existing terms.  Thus, we speak of the brain ‘stem’, the ‘core’ of the galaxy, the ‘heart’ of this, the ‘edge’ of the universe, and so on.((I don’t wish to deny that science is immune to neologisms, but I suggest that all neologisms are either accidental or intentional combinations or corruptions or otherwise representations of existing terms.))  What else could we do?

Theology (particularly natural theology, as distinct from a theology of revelation) shares the same semantic limitations.  Every bottom-up God-word (shall we say every ‘theologism‘?), attempting to speak of the unseen and ineffable, is borrowed from the world of the seen and effable.  Thus, in Judeo/Christian Scripture (neither limited to, nor exempt from the language of natural theology), God is said to be a ‘rock’, a ‘fire’, a ‘woman in labour pains’, a ‘Father’, a ‘mother hen’, a ‘lion’, a ‘lamb’, a ‘land owner’, etc.  What else could we do?

But of course, uniquely, Christian theology claims that the impenetrable veil of perception has been pierced from the other side.  God not only sent an authoritative message or book about Godself, but, to quote (and admiringly negate) Forrest Gump, “God showed up.”  And this revelation has both affirmed and transformed (even subverted) the former types and shadows.  That which was unable to be described with words was the Word made flesh.  “Nobody has ever seen God, but the only begotten Son, in the bosom of the Father, has made him known”, wrote John the seer (John 1:18).  God is not just ‘like’, but was active, present and revealed as a self-giving, dying, rising man.  The nakedly anthropocentric – yet still universal – Lord of All.  In scientific terms, this would be the parallel (not ‘equivalent’) of an extra-cosmological entity (indeed if there be such a thing) entering our cosmos, our Milky Way, our solar system, our planet, our research institutions, and in a Mount-Sinai-like moment, engraving the equations down as the cosmologists shrunk back in a mixture of reverence and fear.

lamb power

I’ve long held the view that God doesn’t always get what God wants/wills/desires.  It seems fundamentally basic to me.

Because, there is more than one way to be omnipotent.

By way of analogy, take my non-omnipotence… my mere potency.  I possess the ‘ability’, or ‘power’ or ‘potency’ to do this or that thing.  I am, within the laws of physics, I suppose, free to do what I like.  In parenting Thomas, I have the power to be harsh or lax, smothering or distant, coercive or cold, forceful or far-off (or hopefully somewhere in-between).

If we take God’s existence (or ‘super-Existence’ or some word we don’t have, etc.) as a given, the possible extremes for God’s mode of interaction with the world are a kind of indifferent and distant deism (like a cold, careless father), or a manipulative, coercive dictator (like a harsh, smothering mother).

The biblical story develops.  Sometimes God seems to be distant, and sometimes God seems in intervene in ways that are quite sudden and forceful.  But as time and the story unfolds, the picture of God develops.  And this development is (as we’d expect – and like unto the development of, for example, science) characterised by both continuity and discontinuity.  But at any rate, God is never perfectly known – not yet anyway (1 Cor. 13:9).

But what does happen is that the New Testament authors are convinced that in Jesus of Nazareth, they have seen God in a way that is truly an ‘unveiling’.  The author of Hebrews contrasts the former God-speech from prophets and such like (Hebrews 1:1-2), with the recent unveiling of the ‘express image’ of God’s person (v3).  The book of Revelation could be called literally ‘the unveiling/uncovering of Jesus Christ’.

One of the most striking, unintuitive and ‘you’d-have-never-guessed-God-would-be-like-this’ aspects of the revelation of God in Jesus is that God’s omnipotence is the kind of omnipotence that is best pictured by a bloodied animal.  A lamb. On a throne.

This God is neither distant, nor a dictator.  This God suffers with us, and conquers the sin and evil that has literally ruined the world.  This God’s omnipotence is best described as lamb power.

for all

James Chastek points out that the authors of Scripture were not constructing a body of ‘evidence’ for God, but rather relating their testimony of things they were witnesses to.  He remarks, “Christ, for one, was chiefly interested in making sure that he would have continual witnesses on earth, not that there would be any careful documentation of what he did or incontrovertible evidence that he did it.  […] It is not obvious that founding everything on a monument, a DNA finding, a more meticulous Hebrew census-taking, etc. would be a better way to go.”

And it occurs to me that founding the faith on personal testimony instead of ‘evidence’ (i.e. “a monument, a DNA finding, a more meticulous Hebrew census-taking, etc.”) is more fitting of a God who wishes to be known to any and all persons and not only to archaeologists, geneticists, and historians.

muslim at church

I preached my first sermon at my summer placement at Ponsonby Baptist today.  After the service, I met a young Muslim man from Bahrain.  He was in the country seeking asylum, and said he wanted to come to church because Christianity was similar to Islam.  I agreed – there is much that Islam and Christianity have in common (see previous post ‘god is like… pt 2‘).  I made sure he knew he was welcome.

Here is yet another example of the ‘both/and’ of both similarities and differences between any two religions or even sects (or even worldviews).  People who use religious disagreement to argue against the existence of a God (the argument from contradictory revelations) over emphasize difference at the expense of very real agreement.  And people who use religious agreement to justify a casual approach to belief (‘…ah, they’re all basically the same…’) over-emphasize sameness at the expense of the very real disagreement.

It’s not “watering down” Christianity to recognise that both it and Islam are within the category of creational, ethical (and eschatological) monotheism any more than it is watering down Pentecostalism to recognise that it and Methodism both exist within the Protestant wing of the Church.

reason coin & revealed christ

The reason coin:

Theism has an idea of what a god is.  It then turns to look at the world and finds its idea more or less confirmed.  Atheism has an idea of what a god is.  It looks at the world and finds its idea more or less unconfirmed.  Theism and atheism are two sides of the same coin – matching up an idea of god with what is seen in the world.

The revealed Christ:

Rather than humans projecting an idea of what a god is like onto observations of the world ((natural theology – whether theistic or atheistic in conclusion)), in Christianity, God reveals himself to us fully and finally in Christ.  This revelation is surprising.  Our logical ideas of god (powerful, glorious, etc.) are shattered by the dying, bleeding, weak, self-sacrificing, humiliating, suffering-with-us God of Christ and His Cross.

“crux sola est nostra theologia” (the cross alone is our only theology) – Martin Luther

true knowledge

A delicious quote:

Knowledge involves the encounter of the probing and projecting subject with the object of its investigation, but it is true knowledge, not when the object is conformed to the imaginative activity of the subject, but when the imaginative activity of the subject is conformed to the reality of the object, when our thinking becomes, in some sense, the image in which its originating object is more or less faithfully reflected. (Tom Smail, Like Father Like Son, 30)