A Different Kind of Calvinism: Jesus’ Unconditional Election

Probably the most defining doctrine of classical, TULIP Calvinism (TC here, as in my previous posts) is the U, “unconditional election.” It is this doctrine which most people associate with the word “predestination.” In order to explain how Evangelical Calvinism (EC, remember) retools election, I will need to briefly but clearly explain both TC unconditional election and Arminian conditional election.

The “Normal” Election Debate

Here’s the gist of the two positions I’ll explain EC election in light of:

  • In TC unconditional election, God chooses before time for some people to believe and others to remain in unbelief, not based on anything He foresees in or about them. God does not elect people to salvation because He knows they will believe or do good. Instead, people believe and do good because God elects them to salvation.
  • In Arminian conditional election, God chooses before time for some people to be saved because He foresees that they will use the grace given to them to believe. He maintains everyone’s free will with prevenient grace, and looks ahead to see if they will use it to believe. If so, they are elect.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of TC unconditional election: infralapsarian and supralapsarian. Infralapsarians believe that God’s choice of election is made in light of His choice to allow (or cause, as some Calvinists say!) the Fall, while supralapsarians believe that God’s choice to allow the Fall is made in light of His choice to elect some to salvation. This isn’t super important right now, but I’ll come back to it.

Electing Who to What, Again?

What is is that the classical Calvinist and Arminian views of election have in common? They consider election the wrong kind of choice. Think of this for a moment: Election is, basically, choosing. When we elect a President, we choose him. When I elect to watch Doctor Who, I choose it over any other show at that time.

For Calvinists and Arminians, election is God’s choice of who will be saved. On this, EC is very different.

In both TC and Arminianism, the choice involved in election is assume to have a certain “who” and a certain “what.” They both consider the “who” of election to be individual believers (not counting corporate election right now), in TC those unconditionally chosen by God and in Arminianism those who God foreknows will believe. They both consider the “what” of election to be final salvation (well, some Arminians argue sanctification) for the “who.” So for both, election is God’s choice of who will be saved.

On this, EC is very different. Drawing heavily from Karl Barth, for EC election can be summed up as God’s choice to be God for a humanity made to be for Him, both sides purposed in Jesus Christ. The “who” is Jesus, both the God who chooses to be for man and the true Man chosen to be for God. The “what” is the loving communion between God and humanity created entirely in, through, and by the one God-man.

Jesus became the reprobate for us so that we could become the elect in Him!

In a secondary way, the human race as a whole becomes the “who,” because Jesus traded His place as God’s Chosen One for our place as the reprobate (those who are not elect but condemned). Because Jesus, “who did not know sin [became] sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” we are now elected in Jesus’ election. The only reprobate (again, those who are not elect but condemned) is Jesus because He suffered our reprobation on the Cross, yet even His reprobation is no more because He rose again and ascended to heaven!

In case this was all confusing, I’ll summarize. Election is choosing. God’s elect, His chosen one, is Jesus. God chose Him to be the Mediator, the God-man who brings God and man together, because He chooses to be man’s God. We are by nature the reprobate, the not-chosen ones, because of our sin. But Jesus became the reprobate for us so that we could become the elect in Him. Now He is risen and we are free to be God’s chosen humans, because we are in Christ, God’s chosen Human.

To add to all this, EC election is unconditional. Jesus is not elect to save us because of any foreseen faith or merit humanity might have. Jesus did not choose humanity because we deserved it or had some potential. His choice to be for us is of freedom and love and completely gratuitous. This election is also supralapsarian, that is, based before the Fall. God did not choose Jesus to bring humanity to Him because of our foreseen or planned sinfulness. It was not originally because God knew we would sin that He brought in Jesus’ life as the solution. Instead, Jesus was always the plan. For God to freely be man’s God and make us God’s man, Jesus was the way from the start.

So What about Free Will vs. Predestination?

I’m sure this all sounds very lovely, but many of you are probably wondering what this has to do with free will and predestination as the debate usually goes. Do people make the final choice if they will be saved or does God choose who will believe? Well, the answer isn’t as simple as the question would like it to be. This particular either/or is a little messed up.

The God revealed in Jesus is not equally interested in saving and destroying.

Unfortunately, to answer this correctly requires that I add another idea to this mix, one that will take longer than this post to explain. If you’re up for some advance study, that element is the [i]vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ[/i]. Google should help if you’re interested until next time. Another hint would be to go back to my second post on eternal security, which has Christ’s vicarious humanity as an important but unnamed theme.

Before I do end, I will explain that EC does clearly and vehemently reject the TC concept of double predestination in which God chooses before time who will be believe and be saved vs who will remain in unbelief and be damned. This is simply not Christian, that is, it is not a Christ-ian concept. The God revealed in Jesus is not equally interested in saving and destroying, on the same basis willing to predestine to life and death. He prayed “Father forgive them” over His most damnable enemies. Therefore the TC idea of God being pleased to unconditionally destine people to death simply doesn’t work.

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Jesus’ Unconditional Election

A Magical Chick-fil-A Spicy Chicken Sandwich Recipe

I do love Chick-fil-A. Their sandwiches are the best. So one day I was on the Internet and searched for a recipe to make a Chick-fil-A style chicken sandwich. This led me to the basis for this post, a Serious Eats Food Lab article on how to make one. The detailed experiment post is here, while the actual recipe is here.

Let me be clear. The Serious Eats sandwich recipe is completely awesome. That makes crazy delicious chicken.

But!

Some people order the spicy sandwich. My wife is definitely one of those people. So in order to please her (and I often do like spicy, too), I did some experimenting to make a Chick-fil-A spicy chicken sandwich recipe. This is the result. It is based on the Serious Eats recipe, with my experimental additions in bold. Ashley gave it her seal of spicy approval, so it will be spicy. In fact, it’s probably spicier than the real spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A, but if you like spicy that’s a good thing.

So without further ado, here’s the details:

Stage One: Brining

Ingredients

  • Water
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Two chicken breasts, cut into a total of four sandwich-sized pieces

Directions

Brining is easy. Fill a pot with water, mix in lots of salt and some sugar (the exact amounts aren’t really important), and then put the chicken and the brine solution into a Ziploc bag or something similar. Let it sit for 6 hours or more. Overnight is pretty convenient. 

Stage Two: Preparations

Ingredients

Spice Mix

  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 tablespoons black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon something else spicy (my preference is jalapeno, but not everyone has that)
  • 1 teaspoon powdered MSG (optional)

Milk/Egg Wash

  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce (any kind works)

Breading

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons powdered non-fat milk
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons spice mix (from above)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Directions

  1. Prepare the spice mix in a tiny bowl. Set aside.
  2. Prepare the milk/egg wash in a medium-small bowl. Set aside.
  3. Prepare the breading in a bigger bowl. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of the milk/egg wash in the breading and mix in to make it somewhat coarse and clumpy.
  4. Start heating up your oil to 350°F. Peanut oil is ideal, but I use vegetable for cost.
  5. Now take your chicken out of the brine. Dry each piece as much as possible (paper towels work), then cover them completely with the spice mixture. 

Stage Three: Getting Cooking

Ingredients

  • Butter. Lots of butter.
  • Hamburger buns.
  • Pickle slices (if you’re into that sort of thing)

Directions

  1. Start battering the chicken. One piece at a time, dip them in the egg, then let the excess drip off and transfer to the flour.
  2. Make sure when battering the chicken to press lots of breading firmly against the chicken to get as much to stay on as possible.
  3. As you’re preparing to cook the chicken, you should probably start working on the buns. Just big-time butter a skillet or griddle and cook the buns in the butter.
  4. Before putting the chicken in the oil, sprinkle them with a last dash of spices.
  5. Now put the chicken pieces one by one into the oil. In my case, each piece took about 6 minutes to cook all the way though.
  6. When done, take them out one by one and immediately sprinkle some more spices on them.
  7. Take the buns off the skillet, stick the pickles and chicken on them, and eat super-spicy, super-delicious chicken!
A Magical Chick-fil-A Spicy Chicken Sandwich Recipe

I Feel Robbed of the Psalms

The heavens declare the glory of God;
 the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
 night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
 no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
 their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
 like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
 and makes its circuit to the other;
 nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

As you’ve just read, the psalms are amazing. Truly, out of all the history of world literature, there is no collection of poems so impressive. Besides merely its size, impressive as that is, the psalms record for us hundreds of years of praise, lament, and prayer inspired by the Spirit and written by the people of Israel to their God, who is our God, now known to us in Jesus.

Yet I feel robbed of them.

What do I mean? I recently read a book by Tom Wright called The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. In this book he discusses the tragic neglect of the psalms in the life and worship of much of the modern Church.

I have to agree, and at the end of his book I felt like I had been missing out for years. Wright, an Anglican, grew up praying and singing the psalms in the Anglican churches he attended. They’ve always been in his life, sustaining him like breakfast and shaping his prayer and worship life. But I, along with many others who grew up in American evangelical churches, do not share that story. While we certainly include the psalms in our Bible reading, we do not generally make use of them as a prayerbook and hymnbook the way some other Christian traditions (and Jesus Himself!) have.

We don’t use the psalms, at least not like Jesus and the early Christians.

This really saddens me. Jesus grew up, as every good Jew did, reading, singing, and praying the psalms in both His private life and public worship. So did the early Christians. And it made a profound impact on them. A quick glance at the New Testament shows dozens and dozens of quotes, references, and allusions to the psalms. In depth study reveals even more of these. So the psalms even greatly influenced our uniquely Christian Scriptures in an incomparable way.

What’s my point? My issue is that we don’t use the psalms, at least not like this. Sure, we’ll have our AWANA kids memorize a few verses, and we have a handful of hymns and Chris Tomlin songs based on them, but overall they get little attention. Yet the psalms are magical. The Holy Spirit brought them to life when they were first written and continues to do so today. They are filled with all the emotions and reflections that all people, especially all of God’s people, live with every day. They are equally filled with God’s hope, promises, and majesty. 

All this means we need the psalms to function in our lives like they were originally written to function for the people of Israel. We need them to lead our prayers and worship, both in corporate life, in the middle of our actual church services on Sunday mornings as a congregation, and in personal life, in our closets and bedrooms as we spend time in fellowship with God.

Like I said, I feel robbed when I hear of Tom Wright’s story, in which he grew up around the psalms used this way. They are written in his heart and mind now, affecting the way he prays, worships, hopes, and sees the world (including his approach to Christianity overall). That’s not my story. The psalms were always just a peripheral part of Scripture, some nice poems that we might include verses of in memorization or stick into a reading plan. We were never taught to pray them, or to sing them, or to really even understand them. At any of the churches I’ve been to (mostly Baptist, but also some Pentecostal and nondenominational, not counting the Episcopal church I went to a Christmas service at), this has been the same. I feel let down by evangelical American churches.

If I could go back in time, I would read, pray, and sing the psalms more.

If I could go back in time, I would read the psalms more. I would pray them and relate them to my own life and our world. I would find music to use so I could sing them. And I believe they would transform the way I think and feel about God, people, and everything else. As it is, I can’t go back and try again, so I’m trying to start doing these things now. I’m only 20, so I guess I still have time (Lord willing!) to be molded like this, but I still feel like I’ve missed out on a lot.

Does anyone agree with or relate to me on this? If so, leave a comment or even email me. I might want to start posting some thoughts on individual psalms and relating them to our lives and prayers, maybe even finding good song versions. Who knows? Well, God does, and to Him be the glory!

I Feel Robbed of the Psalms

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Some Quick Background and the Gist

In my last post, I introduced my recent (somewhat in progress) transition from classical, TULIP Calvinism (“TC”) to Evangelical Calvinism (“EC”). I did not elaborate much, of course. That is the point of the rest of the series. Before I get into all the details, I’ll give a quick history lesson about where EC came from. After all, no discerning believer is going to jump straight into novel doctrine. He’ll need to see roots in the tradition of the Church. Totally new ideas in theology are almost always wrong and lead to dangerous paths, after all.

A Brief History of Evangelical Calvinism

Like all Christian beliefs, EC seeks to have a root in Scripture. Every tradition has its own major texts, though, and EC is no different. Hebrews is a major resource for EC theology. Romans 4, Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1 are as well. These touchstone texts help form the basis for many of the fundamental ideas in EC.

A next major historical reference point for EC theology is Athanasius. He was a 4th century Christian apologist who did some great work on the Incarnation and the Atonement. His book On the Incarnation is still a classic. He is not alone among the Church Fathers in many of his ideas. EC theology makes good use of them.

In looking to historical documents EC identifies mainly with the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

After that, there is some helpful influence within medieval theology. Not much of that is notable here. Naturally, being historically Calvinist and thus also Reformed, EC traces itself in a defining way to the Protestant Reformation. EC theology takes quite a bit from Martin Luther and John Calvin. This doesn’t include either of their ideas on election and predestination. Luther’s “theology of the cross” and Calvin’s use of union with Christ with the duplex gratia (double grace) of justification and sanctification are very important.

Next, EC follows along certain lines of Reformed theology that developed in Scotland. John Knox is an important theologian in this path. In looking to historical documents (as any good Reformed tradition does) EC identifies mainly with the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Evangelical Calvinism, like the Protestant Reformation, seeks to recover old truths and refresh their understanding, not to invent.

In modern times, EC draws quite a bit from Karl Barth (especially in the election department) and even more from Thomas Torrance. Both of these stand firmly in the Reformed camp, though not mainstream. Torrance is himself the origin of the term “Evangelical Calvinist.” It comes from his book Scottish Theology. There he sometimes referred to Scottish Calvinists who preached more on grace than predestination as “evangelical Calvinists.” This was because their theology and practice was naturally more evangelistic than that of classical Calvinism. Today, readers of Torrance including Bobby Grow and Myk Habets have taken that term and made it the designation for this overall theological direction.

I want this to make something clear. EC is not meant to be altogether “new.” Novelty is not always a virtue, especially in theology. While EC might say a few mostly new ideas, most of the EC project is pulling together different ideas that have roots all back through Christian history. Some of these EC refines or explains in new ways. All of them are brought into a sharply Christ-centered focus which has not always been used for them. But the EC movement, in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, seeks to recover old truths and refresh their understanding, not to invent.

A Brief Summary of Evangelical Calvinism

So, what do we get from this history? How did this kind of theology turn out? It seems, to me, to take every thought captive to Christ. It starts and ends with the Triune God of love. EC understands Him only through the way He has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ and then Scripture. We do not start with logical proofs for God’s existence, and a discussion of divine attributes. Instead we start with the revealed fact of the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the way God acts as seen in Jesus Himself—the exact expression of God’s nature—and recorded in Scripture. Any ideas about God’s all-power, all-knowledge, or all-presence are understood by how they are presented to us in this revelation, not by abstract philosophical reasoning. This, naturally, includes questions involving God’s sovereignty and electing plans.

For EC theology, Jesus is the center and the rule of understanding. As Bobby Grow often says, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.” Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.” God has spoken to us about Himself perfectly in His Son. So everything we know about God must be understood in light of what Jesus reveals about Him. Jesus says “Let the little children come unto me.” Therefore God the Father is not working deciding behind the scenes which of the children will not come to Him. “God so loved the world so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” This does not allow for “God secretly decrees which ‘whosoevers’ believe and which perish.” That would mean that God Himself still hides from us, showing in Jesus only some of what He is and what He does. In fact, in this case, it would seem as though Jesus is Himself not God as a man, but God partially revealed through a man!

We start with the revealed fact of the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the way God acts as seen in Jesus Himself.

Not only, though, is Jesus the perfect appearance of God. He is also the prototype human! All human nature is based on Jesus’ human nature. This might sound strange, but consider this. Humanity was created “in the image of God,” aka the imago dei. What is that image? It’s been debated for years, but in truth the answer was always in Scripture. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God!” Jesus is the image of God, and we are made in His image. Therefore Jesus’ own human life is the basis for ours. But what does that mean and what does it do?

Well, because of the last two paragraphs there is no nonsense in EC about a “limited atonement.” Jesus did not come and die only willing to save a handful of people. In fact, simply by coming as a human being Jesus is shown to working towards the salvation of everyone. In Jesus God Himself is joined to humanity in His very nature. So He redeems our fallen state through a life of sinless perfection and complete sanctification. Born “in the likeness of sinful flesh” He condemned our sin. He had a human nature like our own yet didn’t sin, showing us all as guilty. But He doesn’t leave us in our guilt. Instead He died, in His own human person summing up ours on a deep and real level. So He wrapped up all of our sin in Himself and died, taking it with Him. Even though His life proved that we deserved judgment, Jesus suffered that same judgment He brought on us.

Humanity was created “in the image of God.” Jesus is the image of God!

Finally, on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. In 40 days, He ascended to heaven. These events are the final guarantee of salvation for the human race. Jesus, as I said before, is the basis for human life. So when He died to sin, rose from the grave, and ascended to the Father, He accomplished this for all humanity. The death of our sinful natures, new Spirit-powered life, and communion with God are now part of human nature itself! All we need is to hear the Gospel preached with the power of the Holy Spirit working in it. Then we can be brought by the Spirit’s power into Jesus own human life, and so believe and be saved. When we are connected to Jesus by the Spirit through faith, we share His death to sin, His Spirit-powered resurrection life, and His intimacy with the Father. Amen, hallelujah!

Next Time on “The Nicene Nerd”

I hope all of this has rung true to you. I do imagine that it is not obvious how this differs from some things you may have always heard, or how it addresses the so-called 5 points of Calvinism. Rest assured I will answer these questions in the rest of the series. But I thought it was important to go ahead and explain why EC is not a new invention, and what the Gospel looks like from an EC perspective. In my next post, I will probably discuss what’s on everyone’s mind: election and the will of man.

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Some Quick Background and the Gist

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Introducing the Change

I’m not the Calvinist I used to be. This change came rather suddenly, but was the result of a long process of difficulty with TULIP. While when I became a Calvinist (feels like 100 years ago) I loved it. My experience was rather honeymoon like. It was the best thing that had happened to me theologically.

Soon, though, the honeymoon ended. In time I came to be struck by the same problems that keep people from becoming Calvinists in the first place. How does the God of love determine before time to abandon most of humanity in their sins? Does God even love all people in any meaningful way? Can God really glorify Himself through destroying people created in the image of His beloved Son?

These questions bubbled in the back of my mind for a very long time, but I was never able to come up with any answers or any alternative theologies. Arminianism is Biblically weak. Molinism cheats philosophically. Catholic options are, well, Catholic. Open Theism is borderline heresy. For this reason I felt stuck in TULIP Calvinism, unable to find any other doctrine on these matters that seemed robustly Biblical. At one point the tension got so bad I just about went crazy with it, as reflected by a now-deleted blog post. But I settled down after that, content to trust God despite the confusion.

This all changed a few months ago when I discovered Evangelical Calvinism. Drawing from a particular stream of Calvinist tradition in Scotland, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Karl Barth, John Calvin, and Thomas Torrance, Evangelical Calvinism brought fresh perspective, with robustly Biblical and Christ-centered answers (and questions!) that changed everything.

I will not explain all of the differences between Evangelical Calvinism (hereon “EC”) and classical, TULIP Calvinism (hereon “TC”) here. This will be a multi-part series. For this point I will go ahead and give quick, basic, misleading answers to the immediate questions people ask. No, within EC I do not believe in double predestination, irresistible grace, limited atonement, or that God decides every future human choice of sin and evil. TC does affirm all of these points, but I have left them behind now because of a beautiful and Biblical theology that still remains in the historical Calvinist tradition. We may not agree with TC on the “five points on Calvinism” and other things, but EC still originates with Calvinist history and gives weight to John Calvin (on different subjects than TC usually does), so we keep the word “Calvinist.” EC focuses mostly on union with Christ—that we are somehow “in Christ” and it changes us—and the relation of the Triune God with humanity through Jesus instead of issues like predestination and decrees.

I only say all this because several people I’ve mentioned EC to recently have asked what it is all about and how it is different from TC. Well, that’s a long story, so I decided I might as well answer everything in detail through a series of blog posts. Until the next one! Semper reformanda!

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Introducing the Change

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

John 7:53-8:11 (Are Today’s Bibles Reliable?)

Not everything in your Bible may have come from the Bible. “What do you  mean, Caleb?” you ask. Well, the Bible has a very long history. It was written over a period of more than 1000 years, and was passed on for nearly 2000 since its completion. The timeframes for when some of the books of the Old Testament were written can at best be narrowed down to several centuries. 

Because of this, things can change. Before the days of computers, printing presses, and trivia nerds, copying writings was a very difficult, time consuming, and tedious process. So naturally errors would creep in (even some errors in modern published works go largely  unnoticed and uncorrected). These aren’t anything significant in most cases. Many different small mistakes show up in old copies of Scripture. Someone copying down the phrase “the Lord Christ” may have written “the Lord Jesus Christ” out of habit. A sleepy scribe might flip the order of parallel phrases (“roses are red, violets are blue” might become “violets are blue, roses are red”). Someone translating Numbers might accidentally drop a couple of names from a genealogy.

Fortunately for us, most of these errors can be found and corrected. There were, after all, very few times when only one copy of a book of the Bible was in circulation. Especially in the New Testament, several copies would be going around and being copied at once. So most of the time if there is a copy error in one copy, we can check other copies from other places and times to figure out what the right words are. With so many copies, we can usually fix the problems. Some ancient copies of Romans, for example, have “Amen” at the end of Romans 15:33, while some do not. Which is right? Well, most of the copies, including the oldest ones, include “Amen,” while only a handful do not have it, so it probably was originally there. 

Many different small mistakes show up in old copies of Scripture. But with so many copies, we can usually fix the problems.

Unfortunately, not all of the issues in copies of the Bible are so easy. Sometimes the copies are split 50/50 on how a certain verse goes. Sometimes only a few really old copies say one thing, while a lot of copies from way later down the line say another. In these cases more work is required to figure out what the right text is. Sometimes entire verses are in question. A lot of this came into more popular discussion with the arrival of the NIV, since it was the first of the popular modern translations and made many decisions on these questions differently from the KJV. For more on that, you can check my older post “Why Does the NIV Leave Out Verses?”

Today I specifically want to address one of the more serious cases. There are two places in the Gospels where whole paragraphs are in question. The most prominent of these is John 7:53-8:11, commonly known as the story of the woman caught in adultery (the other is Mark 16:9-20). We all know how it goes. The Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus saying she was caught in the act of committing adultery (that must have been pretty awkward). They remind Him that the Law says to stone women who do this. So what will He do? He writes on the ground (some say listing the sins of the people there), tells everyone that whoever is sinless should cast the first stone, and they all leave one at a time. Finally the woman is forgiven and sent away to sin no more.

Most copies of John from before the sixth century do not include the story of the woman caught in adultery, including one of the oldest copies of the Gospels ever found.

The problem here is that nearly all the evidence indicates that this story was not originally part of John’s Gospel. It breaks the flow in a way that you can see a much smoother story by skipping from 7:52 to 8:12. It contains many Greek words that John rarely or never uses elsewhere. While most copies of John from after the eighth century include this story here, most of the ones from before the sixth century do not, including one of the oldest copies of the Gospels ever found. Some copies of the Gospels from a thousand years later puts this story at the end of Luke. Still another set of copies from that time puts it after John 7:36.

Now, when the Greek copy of the New Testament they used to translate the KJV was put together, no one knew this whole story. Many of the older copies of the New Testament we have now hadn’t been discovered yet. So the KJV and the NKJV after it all include this story in its traditional place, and so it became popular and part of the normal Christian picture of Jesus. People use it to argue theology and practice. Pacifists, defenders of the faith against those who say we should obey the Law of Moses, and those who oppose the death penalty bring this passage up. But it doesn’t seem to be from John.

So what do we do here? Is this story a fake? Did it never happen? Are our modern Bibles not even reliable? Can just anything in the Bible be axed like this?

Calm down if you’re as panicked as the person asking these questions in my head. First off, as I said before, there are two places in the Bible (mainly the New Testament) which question anything more than at most a single sentence. Beyond that, we can prove with the number of copies we have that our modern texts are over 90% reliable, and that none of the questions or variations in them actually have an important impact on doctrine or Christian living. So we are on safe ground for what we believe and do being Biblical so long as we practice good interpretation. We don’t need to worry that the whole Bible will fall apart, because we have solid evidence in history that there have been few changes.

We can prove with the number of copies we have that our modern Bible texts are over 90% reliable.

But still, what about this story? Well, even if it wasn’t part of John, it is old. Early Christian writers mention it from even before we have any copies of it. They considered it Scripture. Moreover, it certainly sounds like something Jesus would do, and most scholars who believe the New Testament is reliable also believe that this passage probably did happen. So where did it come from? No one knows for certain. It did probably come from an early apostle or other disciple. Some people have made convincing arguments that Luke wrote it, maybe separate from the rest of his Gospel.

No matter what the details, we can rest assured that the Bibles we hold in our hands today are pretty solid representations of what God originally gave His people. The story of the woman caught in adultery specifically is probably true, and might even be argued to be actual inspired Scripture. It certainly speaks with the power of the Spirit to the love and forgiveness of Jesus. So no worries. Just keep trusting what God has revealed to us in His Son. Amen!

P.S. Here’s the full text of John 7:53-8:11, if anyone wants it.

So each one went to his house. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to Him. He sat down and began to teach them.

Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say? ” They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.

Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger. When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center. When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? ”

“No one, Lord,” she answered.

“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

John 7:53-8:11

John 7:53-8:11 (Are Today’s Bibles Reliable?)