A Riddle of Love and Election

Something occurred to me last night when I was reading Herman Bavinck on the infra/supralapsarian debate in classical Calvinism. (‘Twas a pretty good read, by the way. Bavinck¬†is probably the best that¬†classical, federal Reformed theology has to offer.) A strange dilemma seems to appear in the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional, individual election.¬†Specifically, the relation between love and election is confusing.

Generally speaking, in classical Calvinism it’s said that God loves all, but God has a special love for the elect. Not all agree, of course, with some denying God’s love for the reprobate and (I imagine, since if you can think it someone else has already?) some affirming God’s equal love for all people. But¬†my question is directed to the majority report.

So, does election precede special love or does special love precede election?

If election precedes special love, then we’re left with the question of God’s differentiation between the elect and reprobate. If, logically prior to election, God’s love for all is equal, then why do limits develop on His mercy to the people who He makes to be the elect alone? It’s also a worthwhile question what the character is of this¬†supraeclectic¬†love. Prior to God’s election, is this “love” to be understood as having a saving character or less than a saving character? This¬†affects how the decree of election is understood.

On the other hand, if special love precedes election, and by definition election is¬†God’s choosing, then God chooses the elect because He already favored them. But¬†in that case, then God did not choose who He especially loved to begin with.¬†So why did He love them especially if He had not yet chosen them?

Basically, if special love precedes election then God’s¬†differentiating love seems unchosen and intrinsic to God’s relation to men, and it seems weird and arbitrary that God would naturally love some people more than others without choosing specifically to do so. But if election precedes special love, then it is unclear why or how God would¬†give mercy to some and reject some whom He all loves equally.

Anyone have a suggestion how this is to be resolved in a classical Calvinist framework?

Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

The title says it all. Here they are in no particular order with no particular rhyme or reason (all of tweetable length).

  1. No matter what the topic, there is a Christian way of thinking. When we forget this, or more commonly never learn it to begin with, we mess up politics, theology, and so many other things.
  2. Listen to your neighbor’s argument as you would have your neighbor listen to yours.
  3. In all debate and discussion, give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Before attacking any argument or view, try sincerely to defend it to yourself.
  5. The mind of Christ is not divided. We must always be ready to learn from each other.
  6. Attack positions and arguments as needed, but not the people who use them.
  7. Except to ask a question, don’t respond to an argument you do not fully understand.
  8. If a statement can be interpreted non-heretically: innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Use the label “heresy” sparingly, and avoid it whenever possible.
  10. Even heretics can have great insights: don’t assume everything they say is bad.
  11. Even the best teachers are fallible: don’t assume everything they say is okay.
  12. Just because something’s not heretical doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
  13. Just because someone believes something heretical doesn’t mean they are damned.
  14. Experience and education affect your perspective on evidence…
  15. …But experience and education do not magically alter the soundness of an argument.
  16. Just because you haven’t heard of a view doesn’t mean it’s crazy.
  17. Just because a view seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s right.
  18. Analogies, including in Scripture, can’t be stretched beyond their relevant intent.
  19. The apparent “plain meaning” of a Bible verse is not always the right one…
  20. …But the opposite of the “plain meaning” of Scripture is even less likely.
  21. Someone is not wrong just because they quote someone you dislike.
  22. Godliness and good theology don’t always correlate. Devotion outperforms doctrine.
  23. Every doctrinal position affects other doctrinal positions more than you think.
  24. Inconsistency is not heresy, and heresy is not inconsistency.
  25. Just something looks inconsistent to you doesn’t mean it actually is inconsistent.
  26. Many charges of inconsistency come from a small rational imagination.
  27. Generally, you can’t rule out theological positions on some a priori basis.
  28. Sarcasm is only worth using if it makes an important point in the argument.
  29. If I have all the arguments and all the truth, but do not have love, I have nothing.
  30. Charging your debate opponents with improper motives is bad form and bad love.
  31. Treat debate opponents like Jesus. He might be more on their side than you think.
  32. No doctrine should still make sense if you subtract Jesus.
  33. Avoid as much as possible saying “God couldn’t/wouldn’t do X.”
  34. Not everything that looks like a slippery slope is one.
  35. Never debate in such a way that you couldn’t go off together for ice cream later.
  36. If you form opinions about your interlocutor during a debate, keep them to yourself.
  37. Don’t change the subject with questions hanging.

Final Reflections on the Election

I’m done ranting against a Donald Trump vote. I’ve made my voice clear about that, and if anyone can find a way to vote for Trump without violating their conscience, it’s between you and God. Instead, here are a few other reflections on the election today.

  • I believe the election this year plays a critical role in God’s judgment upon our nation.¬†In Scripture where God’s dealings with the nations are most clearly explained, there is a regular pattern of moral decay, violence, then wicked rulers, and divine judgment through foreign powers. This happened to Israel, Judah, Egypt, Edom, the Roman Empire, and many other nations as recorded in the prophets. In¬†more recent history, it¬†seems to have also happened to 20th century Germany. ¬†Now it seems it is our turn, handed over (by our own hands!) to wicked rulers that they might lead us into military devastation. Whoever wins this election, it will mean that God has let us take ourselves into ruin. In most cases, God’s judgments seem to arise¬†organically out of the nation’s sins, and this is most evident in this election, when we will literally be choosing for ourselves which person God will use to desolate our country. If Clinton wins, our history of foreign intervention and hawkishness will likely reach a climax against Russia, and if Trump wins, well, he could spark a conflict with almost anyone else. It will not end well, and it pains me to see how many people on both sides of the aisle are embracing this coming execution with welcoming arms. (I’m also not the only one to think this right now.) We must now pray that God will have at least some mercy on us, and that whatever military destruction comes of this Presidency¬†is not too horrendously deep.
  • Whoever wins the election, social conservatism is in for a really hard time. If Hillary Clinton wins this election, we are almost guaranteed freer¬†abortion laws and a¬†Supreme Court hostile to any attempts any states might make to regulate the practice. While she may or may not actively pursue the displacement of religious liberty by supposed transgender rights, she will¬†certainly always pick the latter when she¬†does get involved. This Babylon Bee post is probably spot on, really.

    On the other hand, if Donald Trump wins, it is impossible to guess what he will actually do about these issues, but it seems doubtful given their relative (lack of) prominence in his campaign that he will avoid them. More importantly, social conservatism will lose all of its moral credibility. If social conservatives claim that abortion, family, and religious liberty are fundamentally moral issues, but elect a man who has no character and awful moral status at all, whose sexual conduct among other things opposes everything social conservatives believe, then people will certainly stop taking social conservatism seriously and see it as fundamentally hypocritical. As well, the Republican establishment is funded by big business donors for whom social conservatism is a liability now. People are less likely to do business with you if you oppose abortion and LGBTQ rights now, so many of these donors are becoming less and less okay with socially conservative positions. This means there is more reason than ever for the Republican Party to stop trying on social issues, and since Trump has proved they can get a pretty strong (in terms of polls) nominee who only gives lip service to these issues, we may well find that the GOP gives up all interest in working on important social issues (you know, even more than they already have). Thus while social conservatives will still have their issues checked on the GOP box, they will no longer have any active support in either party.

  • All of this will pass away.¬†One day Trump, Clinton, and (if Christ delays that long, which could easily happen) even the United States will only be a footnote in history. Nothing that is happening in the ballot booths today is ultimate. The election and its political consequences are primarily temporary and pertain only to this age, not the age to come. As Christians, we are members first and foremost of the age to come. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God before we are citizens of the United States. In 10,000 years, we will still be citizens of Christ’s Kingdom but we will rarely think back to our citizenship here. Our first duty is to Christ, with all civic duties being second. So we should not worry. We should not stress. If anything in this election concerns us, it should be the way it affects Christian life and witness.¬†Our wrath need not be focused on¬†Trump or Clinton: God’s wrath will take care of them unless they repent. But we should direct our focus and fightings against the spiritual forces at work¬†right now, dividing¬†the Church and inspiring partisan hate, blindness, delusion, and judgments. We should fight the forces which drive people to act the way they do, the power of sin that made Trump and Clinton our major choices in the election.¬†In these areas the Gospel¬†has power, in these areas souls are in danger from¬†greed, pride, deceit, and dissension, and in these areas there will be eternal consequences. But our country? All things shall end, including it. If God has chosen to put the American kingdom down this year (which I believe is true no matter who wins), we must still focus on the Kingdom that endures.

Why Christians Should Totally, Definitely Vote for Donald Trump

I’ve repented.

I have crusaded against Trump for over a year now, but with the election in four days, I have seen the light and turned from the error of my ways. I now endorse Donald J. Trump for President.

Why?

Because I had¬†an epiphany about Jesus’ teachings. I finally realized what all of my evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr. and James Dobson have been trying to tell me.

The ends justify the means.

Isn’t that simple? The ends, whatever good we’re trying to accomplish, can actually justify the means, the things we have to do to make it happen, however bad. If I want something good to happen, it is perfectly right and just to do bad things to¬†get there. All my misdeeds on the way are covered up and made okay by my attempt to make something good happen.

This is what¬†we Christians are called to do for Trump. Hillary is basically the Devil incarnate, after all, and electing her would obviously obliterate the shining paradise that is our nation today. Therefore we are justified in doing¬†anything that is less bad than the destruction of the whole country to stop her. With the stakes this¬†high,¬†something like voting for Trump is no big deal at all, just what we’ve got to do.

I’ll admit, a vote for Trump is¬†pretty sketchy in and of itself. I mean, he’s made loads of money exploiting¬†and degrading women (and men, really) by owning strip clubs, and he’s made more money¬†exploiting and ruining the poor and/or gullible by running¬†a casino empire, which is a blasphemy inviting of swift divine judgment,¬†to ¬†be sure.¬†He’s a serial adulterer who brags about his sexual immorality, probably even including sexual assault, if not rape.¬†Yeah, he lies over and over again about basically anything and everything, even if half the time¬†he doesn’t actually see a difference between lying and telling¬†his truth. And of course, he supports the kind of sexual lifestyle that leads to rampant abortion even if he’s technically pro-life. He doesn’t know anything about policy, and he’s willing to order the use of war crimes and torture. Certainly he has used¬†racially provocative language and tactics to secure the entire white supremacist vote.

But, however bad all of that would be in any other situation, none of it matters this year. Because the ends justify the means. Hillary Clinton is a demon from hell sent to destroy¬†the United States of America, so it’s irrelevant how completely abominable Trump and all he stands for may be on their own. Compared to an old woman who takes really bad email advice detrimental to national security and plays politics in a self-serving way just like anyone else who’s spent decades in Washington, Trump is¬†almost a saint. But even if he’s not, that doesn’t matter, because the ends justify the means. We can do anything, no matter how bad or compromising, if our goal is to stop Crooked Hillary from getting into the White House for a few years.

The Christian way, then, is pretty simple. We are called to make whatever compromises we have to in order to keep the Democrats, especially Killary, out of the White House. If we have to make a deal with the Devil (oh, wait, the Devil’s Hillary, I forgot), so be it.¬†Jesus is our example here.¬†If He were offered a chance at political power, but He had to¬†bow to a wicked ruler first, He would do it for the greater good.

After all, what good is it if you lose the Presidency but gain your souls?

The American Solidarity Party: Social Issues

A while back, I posted about the American Solidarity Party as a potential third way for Christians who are sick of the polarization, incompetence, and corruption involved with our two major parties, the party of death and the party of standing-for-nothing-but-at-least-we’re-not-Democrats. The ASP is a Christian democratic party of the kind seen in many European countries, to sum it up. But when I originally posted, I didn’t offer very much¬†detail in their introduction. So now I want to do a relatively brief series of relatively brief posts on the ASP platform (read the whole thing here) and why I think it at least offers a general direction for a third way in today’s political situation.

So,¬†for this first post on the platform, I want¬†to comment on some highlights in¬†ASP social policy, which is essentially a committed social conservatism. I haven’t included everything, only a few big points.

  • We support constitutional and legal measures that establish the Right to Life from conception until natural death.
  • We call for an end to capital punishment.
  • We oppose the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The very first principle in the ASP platform is an unreserved pro-life one, even¬†up to a Constitutional amendment to establish a right to life from conception. The Democrats are opposed to this, Libertarians are divided, and the Republicans who actually have any power pay lip-service but¬†really just don’t care anymore. But the ASP makes it a #1 priority.

The ASP also¬†opposes the serious evils of euthanasia and assisted suicide, a welcome addition. The opposition to capital punishment is likely off-putting to many of my evangelical friends, but really I think it’s not a half-bad idea, and even if you disagree¬†I don’t think it should be viewed as a big problem.

  • We acknowledge that the Judeo-Christian worldview has played a positive role in the history and culture of the United States of America. We advocate for laws that allow people of all faiths to practice their religion without intimidation and deplore aggressive secularism that seeks to remove religion from the public sphere.

The ASP is committed not to theocracy or making Christianity dominate the state, but nonetheless they have no desire to have references to God, Christianity, and the like removed from the public square. They recognize our heritage and want to at least respectfully acknowledge it. They care to preserve the rights of all religions to be publically heard and expressive.

  • We support the legal recognition of marriage as a union of one man to one woman for life.
  • The ASP is committed to the defense of the Bill of Rights.
  • We deplore the reduction of the ‚Äúfree exercise of religion‚ÄĚ guaranteed by the First Amendment to ‚Äúfreedom of worship‚ÄĚ that merely exists in private and within a house of worship. The right to follow what the Declaration of Independence called ‚Äúthe Laws of Nature and Nature‚Äôs God‚ÄĚ must be respected.
  • We will defend the rights of public assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. We oppose the expansion of censorship and secrecy in the interests of ‚Äúnational security.‚ÄĚ

Another vital plank of the ASP platform is¬†natural marriage. The Democrats hate it, the Libertarians generally oppose it, and the big Republican donors¬†(with their silent establishment puppets) are all opposed to it now, so it probably won’t last on the RP platform for much longer. Natural marriage and the family are essential to the fabric of human society, and the ASP supports it explicitly.

The ASP is also strongly committed to¬†basic American rights. Religious freedom and freedom of association, among others, are in pretty bad danger these days from all parties, though especially the Democrats and, while the Libertarians shouldn’t be this way, Gary Johnson is. And of course the battle has been lost on the Republican donors. But the ASP is committed to all Constitutional rights, especially free religion.

  • We support the decriminalization (not¬†the legalization) of recreational drugs. Funds currently expended on the ‚Äúwar on drugs‚ÄĚ should be directed toward prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation.
  • We support the implementation of the so-called “Nordic model” for dealing with prostitution by imposing stricter and more uniform penalties for the purchase of sex, decriminalizing the selling of sex, and providing viable employment alternatives to those who are exploited as prostitutes.

The ASP is also opposed to tough laws on social vices, as they seem to cause more harm than good. They prefer decriminalization (not legalization) so that average participants do not have to be stuffed into prisons with actual bad guys. These tough penalties help no one, hurt lots of people, and cost loads of money. The ASP would prefer an alternative system in which vices are problems to be solved moreso than crimes to be prosecuted.

This is in contrast to the Libertarians, who would usually like to actually legalize and normalize the majority of drugs and other vices. Such a system necessarily offers a social endorsement of those evils. But Democrats and Republicans keep wanting to make a bad thing worse by wasting time, money, prison space, and human life to punish people who are as much victims as perpetrators. Neither is desirable.

The Bible Told Who So? Andy, Apologetics, and Authority

I just don’t think the Bible is important to Christianity and we don’t need to rely on it as Christians.

Okay, that’s not me. Actually, that’s what people have been getting for some reason from Andy Stanley’s recent controversial sermon, “The Bible Told Me So.” I would have thought this controversy would have settled down a bit since I first ran across it a couple weeks ago, but it really hasn’t. So I’m just going to offer my thoughts.

First, if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, you should probably just go hear the whole sermon for yourself before forming an opinion. It would be inappropriate to¬†make a judgment on this matter before hearing everything he says in its proper context. But here’s a summary. Basically, Stanley argued that we should stop hanging the core of our faith on the total perfection of the Bible and instead¬†put it on the Resurrection. It is not the Bible that gives us Christianity, but rather Christianity was created by the Resurrection and the Bible¬†came to be because of that. Sometimes¬†people will find¬†all kinds of objections to believing everything in the Bible (stuff like “What about evolution?” “I heard the Exodus never happened,” or “Archaeology says walls of Jericho didn’t come tumbling down”), but ultimately if their faith is grounded in the historical fact of the Resurrection rather than in the totality of a perfect Bible, they will find themselves reasonably led to stick to the faith and simply wrestle through the other issues. If the ultimate focus is, “The Bible told me so,” then as soon as they find a problem in the Bible that they can’t find a decent answer for, their faith will be in jeopardy. If the ultimate focus is, “Jesus rose from the dead,” then¬†no random archaeological discovery about the Ancient¬†Near East¬†will endanger this sure bit of history on which everything else hangs.

To be honest, it still doesn’t make sense to me how people could truly object to this line of reasoning except by (usually willful) misunderstanding. It is simply true that the Resurrection is the one historical point on which everything hangs, and that¬†even if we had a fallible Bible or no Bible at all this would still be real history deserving of faith in Christ. But of course there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, so I will quickly address two common misconceptions about this argument.

  • This is not saying the Bible has errors.¬†Part of the point of this argument is to make it irrelevant to Christian faith whether the Bible has errors or not, but even so the argument does not¬†ask us to say there are errors in the Bible, and Stanley has explicitly stated that he believes in inerrancy: “I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true.”
  • This is not saying that we know about the Resurrection without the Gospels. Some people have imagined that if Stanley is moving the focus from the “Bible” to the Resurrection, then¬†without the Bible he has¬†no¬†way of¬†knowing about the Resurrection. But Stanley isn’t removing the Gospels from our method of knowing about Jesus. He is changing the focus from the “Bible” as a single, bound, book of 66 books complete with a theology of¬†inspiration‚ÄĒa sacred text‚ÄĒto the fact that it contains Gospels and epistles written in the first century by eyewitnesses whose lives were changed by the event of the Resurrection. The Gospels are being presented as simple historical evidence first. If we can show that¬†the New Testament demonstrates the historical reality of the Resurrection as simply testimony for an event from eyewitnesses,¬†then we can build from the fact of the risen Christ to give someone a full Bibliology.

So, given all of this, I think that what Stanley has said is good apologetics and accurately expresses the historical rationale for why we can believe. Our faith in ultimately grounded in the fact that Jesus did really rise from the dead in space and time 2000 years ago and we have historical witness to that in the New Testament. Everything else in the Bible is true, but even if it were not or if we had reason to doubt, the Resurrection would be enough to hold everything together.

But, I am not willing to let Stanley off easily just because I agree with his basic apologetic point. There is still a problem here, and that is with his overall approach. The problem with “The Bible Told Me So” isn’t so much¬†what Stanley says so much¬†as¬†to whom he addressed it. My problem is with Stanley’s approach to preaching and¬†church.¬†What Stanley said would belong in an apologetics conference or in a conversation with unbelieving friends or doubting Christians, but not in church. His recent interview with Russell Moore¬†highlights what I’m saying. Moore asked him what he would do if we had the power of an evangelical pope. The first part of his response was that he would have all the small, dying churches sell their buildings and stuff and give them to church planters. Then he added a part related to this sermon saying that he would ask pastors to get the spotlight off the Bible and back on Christ’s resurrection, which of course sent people into reactionary spasms of “Heresy! Apostate man!” But the two together, along with everything else about Stanley’s ministry, make my point. He is treating church and its services as the place and time for evangelism, outreach, and apologetics. It’s a seeker-driven model all about getting people in. Thus he uses a primarily apologetic mode for Scripture, one which¬†can’t take Scripture as a presupposition but instead must use it as a¬†tool of historical reasoning. This is a fine way to evangelize, but it’s a terrible way to do church. As I¬†argued before, church is for the Church. Church is a time for edifying believers, uniting us in the Gospel in worship of God in Christ, discipleship, and proclaiming God’s word in Scripture. In¬†church, we can and must treat Scripture as¬†a presupposition. When preaching and teaching to believers we are to take its final, infallible authority for granted. There are other contexts and times, especially one-on-one conversations, for handling Scripture in the merely historical, apologetically strategic way that Stanley is doing, but it is not the way to feed the sheep, which is the true purpose of¬†church gatherings. I criticize Stanley here not for what he says, but to whom he says it. He should be saying these things to unbelievers outside of¬†church, or to struggling believers in personal or training environment, not to a gathered church body. His ecclesiology is the real problem. His Bibliology is actually fine. But this ecclesiological problem¬†is a problem, and it’s why I’m not thrilled with him and his ministry. Get church right, and use¬†the power which comes from healthy church to evangelize in the world. That’s the issue.

What God Has Done, Not What He “Would” Do

“God wouldn’t…” This unfortunate phrase appears fairly often in theological debate. Along with this one come on occasion “God couldn’t” or, more rarely, “God shouldn’t.” Yet to me reasoning which starts in this way seems somewhat misguided at best and dangerous at worst. To explain why, I shall first provide some examples of what I dislike.

  • A theistic evolutionist might say, “God wouldn’t create the natural world in a God-of-the-gaps manner.”
  • A young earth creationist might say, “God wouldn’t create life by such a violent and inefficient process as evolution.”
  • A Calvinist might say, “God wouldn’t waste any of Jesus’ blood dying for those who won’t be saved.”
  • An Arminian might say, “God couldn’t save everyone without violating their free will.”
  • A theological progressive might say, “God wouldn’t oppose people of any sex who love each other getting married.”
  • A theological conservative might say, “God wouldn’t [maybe couldn’t] provide us with a Bible anything less than 100% inerrant.”
  • A universalist might say, “God couldn’t send Jesus to die for everyone but everyone not be saved.”
  • An exclusivist might say, “God wouldn’t save those who reject His Son.”

What do these all have in common? They all seem entitled to be overly presumptuous in discussing God. I take it as an absolute axiom that God is utterly, sovereignly free. God is under no obligations outside of Himself, and is not bound to any structures, logics, or rules beyond those to which He freely chooses to bind Himself. If this is the case to, in my opinion, any meaningful extent at all, then what use is a “wouldn’t” or a “couldn’t?”

The fundamental problem with trying to reason out such controls over God’s activity is that of the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is above; we are below. God is infinite; we are finite. God created and transcends the natural order; we were created and are radically contingent within the natural order. All of this adds us to that God’s famous declaration in Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.”

Given Jesus’ own life (among other realities), this radical disjunction between human expectations and divine actions should be entirely unsurprising. How hard-pressed would one be to imagine a Jew before Christ saying, “God would never become a man?” Or perhaps one did expect that God would come in a human form or something, but might have thought, “When God comes, He will come in glory and power, certainly not in a lowly manger.” Indeed, when Jerusalem was abuzz with the hope that Jesus would take up the Messianic role and set Himself up as God’s king against Rome, did He not instead take the humble role of the suffering servant? Who before this happened would have said anything but, “God could not die!”

The pattern is clear. God has revealed that His normal practice is overturning human expectations, shattering our ideas of what He could or would do. His ways have appeared startling and paradoxical throughout His whole history of dealings with mankind, Israel, His own Son, and the Church. With such a free, sovereign, and surprising God, how could we ever presume to figure out His truths by way of reasoning what He could or would do? This would be akin to predicting what a cunning, master chess player would do when you yourself barely even know the rules of the game.

Instead, I believe we should restrict ourselves to the question of only what God has done, or promised to do. An examples, what if we reframed the earlier example debates this way exclusively?

  • Did God create life by evolutionary, biological means, or by immediate miracle?
  • Has God provided His Son as atonement for all people, or only some?
  • Has God said that homosexuality is sinful, or has He left this open?
  • Did God inspire Scripture in an inerrant way, or in another way?
  • Has God said He will save all or some, and if some who has God said He will save?

None of the answers to these questions are important to this present post (and I can tell you now that you will not be able to use this list to figure out my stances on anything you do not already know). What matters is cutting away the “would” and “could” to focus on what God has actually done. Trying to work the other way, making the arguments I sampled at the beginning of this post, works as an effective red herring, taking our attention away from reality where God has truly done this or that, and instead pulling us into a vain world of hypotheticals and insolent speculation on the divine purposes. If we are to let God simply be God, and do as He wishes, then we should make a rule to assess His deeds a posteriori, not a priori.

On the other hand, I am not issuing a blanket condemnation on all attempts to reason about less clear areas of God’s activity from more clear ones. Obviously that is necessary in some way and to some degree. For example, if someone was arguing that God lied, we would be perfectly justified in responding “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Yet if we are to reason in this way, we must do so only on the foundations of what God has already clearly done and said, not inferences from the abstract, provisional, philosophical, and analogical side in our notions of who/what God is. On this latter ground there is simply far too much wiggle room, too many chances to go down a mental wrong turn without enough light to ever tell. Who is, after all, qualified to understand God’s ways anywhere but within the parameters set by God’s ways?

On this note, I shall end with this simply inexhaustible quote from Paul:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

My Stance on the Rapture

I just realized that I haven’t actually written about the Rapture on this blog¬†at all since I began it. Yet the Rapture is a fun and popular¬†debate, and it’s one of the few issues on which Christians can disagree without very many people getting angry or declaring you a heretic (though some still do).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? Before I answer, I’ll¬†quickly survey the popular options. Here they are:

  • Pre-tribulation Rapture:¬†The most common and popular view, mostly popular because of the writers like Tim LeHaye and the¬†Left Behind movies (not counting the Nick Cage one). In this view, immediately before the 7-year tribulation period, Jesus will make something of a partial coming in which He will instantly gather all of His people from around the globe to Himself and¬†take them back to heaven. After this the world will experience severe judgments from God for 7 years¬†until Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom.
  • Post-tribulation Rapture:¬†Probably the second most common view, in post-tribulationalism¬†the Church will have to live through the 7 years of judgment, though protected by God along the way, and after that Jesus will return, take His saints up to heaven, and institute His millennial reign.
  • Mid-tribulation Rapture:¬†In this view (also called¬†pre-wrath), the¬†Rapture takes place halfway through the tribulation, prior to God’s pouring out of His wrath on the world. Mid-trib makes a distinction between the persecutions and sufferings of the first half of the tribulation and the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath of the second half.

To jump right to it, none of these appeal to me. I don’t think any of them have sufficient Biblical grounding, and I think they all miss the important point of what the Rapture¬†is. That said, I think pre-trib is the least likely of these, and in fact, I would go so far as to say that it has no Biblical evidence whatsoever and is every bit as much a sketchy extra-Biblical tradition as any Catholic innovation (no offense to my papist friends, of course).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? First off, I doubt that Revelation even teaches a distinct 7-year tribulation period. I agree with those who argue that the years, times, and seasons in Revelation are symbolic, and that the sequences of 7 (bowls, wrath, trumpets) are actually different visions which go back and refer to the same thing, much as Pharaoh had two dreams in one night with the same meaning.

This, of course, makes any of the¬†popular views on the Rapture’s timing moot. The terms pre, post, and mid-trib don’t make sense without a specific 7 year tribulation.¬†What does this do to the Rapture itself? In the eschatological timeline I find most convincing,¬†the millennium is a reality for¬†those who have died in Christ¬†now, and it will end when Christ returns. When He returns, He will, as Scripture says, call His people together to meet Him in the air. Exactly what this will look like I do not know (is “in the air” a literal description, even?), but what comes next is the most¬†serious departure from the other Rapture views.

I do not believe that we will be Raptured to heaven. That is where Christ is coming from, and in fact He is bringing heaven with Him to earth. Rather, our Rapture will be the time in which we are transformed by the sight of Him to be like Him, and then we will escort Him to earth. At this time all the dead are raised, the world is judged, and the entire creation will be recreated around Jesus Christ. Then heaven and earth will be one, with Christ ruling at the center.

So, specifically, I take the Rapture to be when we meet Christ in the air to be glorified and raised to resurrection life before escorting Him to His take rule over the kingdom, which now extends over the whole earth. 

Where do I get such an idea? The term¬†parousia, used in the New Testament to refer to Christ’s return, means “appearing” or “presence.”¬†In particular, it was used in the Roman Empire (under which, of course, Israel was ruled and against which Christ was proclaimed as Lord) to refer to the “appearing” of the emperor to a city or colony. When news of his coming came,¬†the citizens of Rome would exit the city to gather around him and give him a royal escort into their city. It is not only possible but quite likely that Paul saw very much the same kind of thing going on when Christ returns for us.

N. T. Wright is the most well-known proponent of this view, so if you want to learn more about it I would recommend that you check out this brief essay he wrote on the topic, and perhaps also check out his excellent book, Surprised by Hope, which covers this and other issues related to heaven, the resurrection, and the new creation.

What’s So Calvinist about Evangelical Calvinism?

If you’ve followed some of my posts about Evangelical Calvinism, you might have to wonder what exactly¬†makes it deserve the label “Calvinism.” After all, we reject¬†the defining U, L, and I of TULIP. Without the meaty bulk of the Calvinist system, what¬†substance is left for the¬†title “Calvinist?”

Without getting into too much detail either theologically or historically, here are a few basic ways that EC identifies itself with wider Calvinist tradition.

  • EC was born of Calvinist descent.¬†The major influences which led to EC’s development were¬†Calvinists or their students. EC draws from Calvin himself, John Knox, and the Scottish Reformation, for example. Karl Barth, a very important EC forerunner, studied extensively from the Reformed tradition, including especially Calvin. T. F. Torrance¬†was a student of Barth and a Scottish Presbyterian. It likewise appeals to the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism not dogmatically but as helpful touchstones. This is in contrast with Arminianism, which may have begun within a Reformed context with Arminius but quickly morphed into a radically non-Reformed system, hardly similar or sympathetic to any of the Reformers, under the influence of people like Wesley.
  • EC stresses the absolute priority of God’s action in salvation. Both classical and Evangelical Calvinists agree that God’s active decision to reveal Christ to someone through the Spirit is the necessary condition for the event of salvation, not merely a generic “prevenient grace” enabling a “free will.” The Spirit who moves as He wills must choose to personally appear and present Jesus as Lord and Savior to us before we can respond to Him. It is only in this encounter that we become freed for faith in Christ. We simply differ as to whether our response is inevitable when¬†this revelation takes place. EC actually takes the divine initiative a step further by holding that even our response when it does take place was originally created in the human faith of¬†Jesus Christ, and only imparted to us by the Spirit, rather than awakened¬†simply in ourselves.
  • EC emphasizes¬†God’s free choice of election before anything else in salvation. While¬†we do not agree about who the elect are or what exactly election entails, both of us agree that God’s decision to elect, to choose¬†a people for Himself,¬†plays a vital role in the history and cause of our salvation. While most Arminians tend to make election into a pretty pointless formality (“I know that Bob will believe, thus I will save him.”), Calvinists both classical and Evangelical agree that¬†God’s decision of election plays an active and causative role in¬†our salvation. We also agree that God’s election¬†is unconditional, again in contrast to the conditional element of common Arminianism. ¬†Even the corporate election of¬†more modern Arminians is conditioned on the Fall, whereas some classical Calvinists and all EC agree on a supralapsarian election, a kind of election which comes before and apart from even God’s decision to allow the Fall.
  • EC makes good use of John Calvin.¬†All Calvinists like Calvin, right? While EC doesn’t take up Calvin’s actual doctrine of predestination,¬†EC does implement Calvin’s¬†concept of the¬†duplex gratia, double grace, of justification and sanctification flowing from union with Christ. This is key to¬†the EC understanding of how salvation works and begins, using a framing that is more personal than legal. EC also makes use of Calvin’s¬†work involving assurance and many¬†similar themes.

I could perhaps address some other deep theological and historical connections between Evangelical Calvinism and classical Calvinism, but this should be a pretty good start. I also realize that most, if not all, of these points probably raise a handful of questions, so if you have them feel free to comment and ask.

Thoughts and Questions about Transgender Stuff

Awkward transgender kid

With all the transgender issues on the news lately, I think we as conservative Christians need to take a step back. From there we must ask and then articulate what precisely it is that we find objectionable in transsexualism and why. For example, I assume that most of us do not agree that merely the psychological aspect of feeling or believing that your mind is aligned with the opposite sex that your body constitutes a sin. After all, we don’t usually agree that experiencing attraction to the same sex is a sin, either.

Likewise, most of us I believe would not consider a woman being into “masculine interests” (e.g. cars, football, fighting skills, hunting) or a man being into “feminine interests” (e.g. sewing, homemaking, childcare, chick flicks) as sinful. We would still agree even if someone was completely the opposite of the norm for their gender.

Then come¬†the more ambiguous questions about appearance. Most Christians in my experience would not condemn a man with long hair or a woman with short hair, or a woman wearing a pantsuit. Yet a total conversion, say a man with long, braided hair, a short skirt, high heels, and a flowery pink blouse, would garner a less favorable response. Where is the line, if it both exists and can be defined, and why? (Remember: if we were to appeal to Old Testament law we’d need to show that it still applies, and why it does.)

Then what about calling yourself a member of the opposite sex? Is that the line? Is it a form of lying? Then again, maybe it’s not lying if you’re not trying to say that you’re physically that gender. Is it sinful for attempting to redefine yourself in contradiction to the bodily reality gifted to you by God?

On the other hand, I expect most of us would agree that it’s crossing any lines to go through a sex change operation. Yet if we want to hold this line, we will need to articulate why it’s wrong. What makes a surgery to fix this mind-body disorder different from surgeries to fix other non-life and death issues? Is it, as some might argue, no worse than problems your hair or toning your abs? Is it more like a cosmetic surgery, and are cosmetic surgeries appropriate? Why or why not?

Of course, I imagine nearly all of us Christians with conservative views on sexuality would also agree that it crosses the last line for a transgender person to have sex with someone of the same biological sex, even after surgery. The only way out would be to say that the transgender person actually counts before God as their chosen sex, which seems a difficult argument to make.

Yet what about a celibate transgender? Are they in the clear, especially if they forgo a sex change operation? Or are they still in sin for identifying with a gender which is not their biological sex? Yet the latter would seem to place a greater burden on transgender people than we usually affirm for gay people, whom we will not generally condemn if they remain celibate. Or are the issues in fact just that different?

For some of these questions I have fairly dogmatic answers, yet for others, I am less certain. I’m quite confident that sex between a transgender person and someone of the same biological sex is as sinful as any homosexuality. I also believe that sex change operations do great violence to the inherent aim and meaning of bodily sexuality. But the celibate transgender? I’m not sure what to make of someone who remains sexually pure while identifying with a gender which is not their own. I’m suspicious, but not dogmatically certain of sin. (I also realize that this situation is highly hypothetical since people who commit to celibacy are rare enough in the 99% of society that isn’t transgender, and even in the Church.) There are other ambiguities as well, such as how someone who had a sex change operation in the past, but since repented, should go on to live.

Despite the issues that arise, we must be clear, confident, and courteous on this matter. It is not enough simply to express outrage, or mere confusion or head-shaking. The changing world will most likely not respect us no matter how we handle this, but at least if we respectfully offer a full, rationally defensible, coherent alternative vision of gender and sexuality then we can stand before God and conscience as level-headed, innocent peacemakers rather than obtuse, contentious reactionaries. And maybe, just maybe, when we adorn the Gospel with such grace and wisdom, some folks out there will be drawn to come to the Light. Not the light of our right side, of course, but the Light who is Christ and makes all things new, even broken gender identities.

P.S. For really good further reading, I recommend this post by Alastair Roberts and the accompanying podcast.