WYSIATI

I have been reading the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He came up with this awkward acronym (he freely admits this awkwardness). It stands for:

What You See Is All There Is

Kahneman speaks of two Systems of Thinking— System 1 and System 2. System 1 is intuitive and unconscious (Fast). System 2 is thought-laden and conscious (Slow). Both processes are lazy (or efficient if you prefer). Both like to operate heuristically, utilizing mental short-cuts or thumb rules— especially System 1.

One of those mental short-cuts is WYSIATI. Often this is a bad short-cut. An example of this is in magic tricks. I remember watching a show on TV where a magician with assistants put up a screen in the middle of a big field. The narrator talks for a bit and then when the screen was removed there was a tank (as in very large military vehicle). It did seem quite amazing until they showed things from a different angle. From a camera angle from higher up where the screen was not blocking the view, we see that as soon the screen is in place, at the very far end of the long field an object begins to move. It is the tank. It slowly lumbers across the field until it is quite close to the screen. Then the screen is removed and there it is. Once one sees how it is done, one is struck by, “Why in the world did I find this amazing?” The answer is that, unless we make a conscious effort otherwise, we make the mental short-cut, WYSIATI. Before the screen is in place we see a vacant field. When the screen is in place, the camera doesn’t change its position, and the sound is muted except for the voice-over from the narrator. The mind just assumes things are as they were— what we saw is all there is.

As Christians we are sometimes quick to complain about scientists who seem to follow this perspective Many embrace a form of Empiricism or Naturalism that at its worst boils down to WYSIATI.

But we can fall into the same trap. Perhaps in Evangelical circles this can be especially true. It does seem like in Evangelical theology we don’t like to honor the idea of Mystery. Far too often rather than accepting there is much out there that we know nothing about, we try to make up answers based on our own ignorance. It is like a Jehovah’s Witness lady who was a friend of a friend many years ago. She claimed to understand fully everything in the Bible. It is a great way to preserve one’s beliefs and biases. I know everything— there is nothing more to learn. Sometimes the catchphrase used by some, “Sufficiency of Scripture” is a mental shortcut for assuming that there is nothing more out there.

This is rather strange. After all, we often look with great fondness, even with applause, those scientists and great thinkers in history who saw exploration of the created world as a way of studying God (if the universe is a creation of God, it is then a revelation of God).

This greatly contrasts with Charles Hodge, 19th century theologian, who (if his own words accurately describe himself) decided that early Reformed theologians got it all right, and so his job was to pass along that body of knowledge to the next generation without any corrections or improvements. In essence, he was to be an indoctrinater rather than an educator– or a theologian.

This is a mental short-cut of the same form. Whatever they found is all there is. No mystery, no exploration, no uncertainty.

I think we can do better. Kahneman notes that we can consciously avoid WYSIATI. The key point is that it is conscious— with intent. Centuries ago, may thought that the universe was small and simple. Lights shining through holes in the dark sky and a few roving lights above a flat or curved land. But eventually we were able to see further out, and further in, to discover that the world of God’s making is vastly greater and more magnificent than we could ever have imagined. But as incomprehensible is this universe we are in and the One who created it, it is no less incomprehensible than those Christians who seek to make the Universe small—- closing their minds off to the possibility that there is more than their eyes behold.

Missionaries and Nationalism. Part Two

Continuing thoughts on the 1970s era book by J. Herbert Kane (1910-1988), “Understanding Christian Missions.” Written in the time of the many independence movements around the world as well as the height of the Cold War, it has much more to say on the relationship between missionaries and nationalism than more recent works. For Part Two, I am looking at what Kane said regarding the fact that national churches in colonies (I assume he is speaking of Evangelical churches… some other churches definitionally embraced Liberation Theology and independence) have often been little involved in independence movements. He gives a number of reasons.

A. Mission churches were the products of missionaries, who were typically Westerners. Mission churches were essentially a product of colonization.

B. Mission churches were founded by missionaries, and missionaries commonly have little interest in politics. I can relate to this. I have little interest in politics and so if people I supervise are highly political (and a few have been) they are that way in spite of me rather than because of me. I recall Billy Graham saying that if one wants social change in a country… then focus on evangelism. Social change will happen naturally as more are saved. I don’t know if he truly believed that or was being self-serving… but that is simply not how it is. If missionaries and churches focus on evangelism and ignore social injustice, they will create new Christians and churches with little interest in social injustice or political change. The fruit you get depends on the seeds you plant.

C. In many countries, Christians were a small, and sometimes persecuted group. Many believe (often correctly) that independence movements are not likely to benefit Christians. Often the opposite could be expected.

D. Many nationalistic movements were linked to non-Christian groups… and sometimes anti-Christian groups. I am from the United States and among Evangelicals if one wants to crush a social justice initiative, all one has to do is suggest that those seeking justice are Communists. Of course, the result of this sort of fearmongering is that Evangelical Christians are identified as rejecting social justice, and Communists supporting the same. Of course, if a nation becomes independent, it is no benefit for the Christian churches to be seen as collaborators with the colonial powers.

E. In many mission churches, the majority of the people are poor and illiterate or semi-literate. This sounds a bit insulting. At the same time, in many places this could be true. Generally, changing which rich and powerful people are in charge has more of an effect on rich and powerful people. The destitute and working poor, often are little affected by such changes.

F. Perhaps most importantly, many mission churches, and even more missionaries were beholding churches, mission agencies and individual supporters from the colonizing countries. These supporters were often very much not in support of independence movements. And even if there were those who did support independence, it had to have been scary to risk loss of financial and other forms of tangible support

Although many of the exact situations have changed, the basic issue remain. We would do well to learn from the ambiguous lessons and examples of the past.

Missionaries and Nationalism. Part One

I have been reading a bit of a book by J. Herbert Kane (1910-1988), “Understanding Christian Missions.” Originally published in the 1970s, the book is woefully out-of-date. And yet, it is that quality that makes it valuable in some ways. For example, it has a very interesting chapter on political involvement. A major part of that is on the issues of colonialism and nationalism. Nowadays, we may talk about semi-autonomous regions, national territories, or spheres of hegemony— but we rarely think in terms of colonial powers and colonies. However, in the 1970s, this was very much a still current issue. At that time, the colonial powers were rapidly disintegrating as national independence movements were moving towards final victory. It was also the time of the Cold War, so much of this process is also seen occurring linked to the geopolitical chess match between the NATO alliance and the Warsaw Pact countries.

Much of the discussion is out of date because many of the questions have shifted… and yet the broader questions remain. Today, many look on with disdain at missionaries in history as being supporters of colonization, and also waging a war of cultural imperialism. As vigorously as some have argued these points, others have challenged these views. Some have portrayed missionaries as empowering nationalistic movements.

Kane does a good job of avoiding the extremes here (the extremes are almost always being wrong, as most people over the age of 22 typically learn). He notes several things (drawing from pages 252-255, of the 4th edition, 1986) that relate to missionaries who served in colonies.

#1. During the colonial age, imperialism was a way of international life. Perhaps I would say, it was the worldview. It was the world they were born into, and thus the system that makes sense. It is hard to picture a new reality, and so many missionaries supported colonialism simply because it is what everyone they were brought up with supported. Relatedly, even if they thought some colonialism is bad, it is likely that their brand of it (their own nations colonies) is better than other brands.

#2. Those missionaries who had concerns about colonialism often saw it as the ‘lesser of two evils.’ They saw suffering of various groups and believed that through colonialism, some of those evils could be addressed. Some believe that colonies brought CHRISTIANITY, COMMERCE, and CIVILIZATION. These were commonly seen as all inherently good. Even countries that eschewed colonialism could fall for that logic. The United States, a country that supposedly supported freedom from imperialists (at least from those lands that were not affected by the American belief of ‘Manifest Destiny’) still did embrace colonialism in certain places— specifically those lands they gained from the Spanish American War. While the US did not use the term “colony,” in practice that is what they were. However, the acquisition of these lands was couched in non-economic terms. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ argued that it was American responsibility to ‘help’ the Filipino by ruling over them— and President William McKinley also described the take-over in terms of benevolence. Frankly, I tend to see the “Lesser Evil” principle as an ethical weak position. I prefer the “Greater Good” principle, while acknowledging that good can be hard to find… especially in the political arena.

#3. Many accepted colonialism as part of the “Sovereignty of God.” Sadly, this is truly horrible theology. Kane himself did seem to find it hard to imagine that previous generation missionaries truly believed this. It is essentially states, “’What is’ is what is meant to be.” That seems to be way out of line from the Bible, where prophets and apostles pretty consistently state, “’What is’ needs to change.” Often God’s sovereignty becomes little more than a call for laissez-faire politics— for maintaining the ‘status quo.’ Yet, if a missionary felt called to stand against the status quo and seek to cause change, it certainly seems reasonable that he or she could claim to be acting according to the Sovereignty of God as well— especially if they succeed.

#4. Missionaries were commonly among the first to identify evils in the colonial system in which they resided. While missionaries sometimes flourished within the colonial system (at least when the colonial power was supportive of what they were doing and where they were doing it), they commonly stood against the many evils and exploitative practices carried out by colonialists. This is difficult. If one is asked to serve God within an evil and despicable system, should one focus on especially egregious abuses while ignoring the overall bad system, or attack the system itself?

#5. Missionaries have always (or at least mostly) saw themselves as ambassadors of Christ, not of the colonial government. I don’t think this viewpoint answers the question of what response is appropriate. Still, clearly, the charge that missionaries were pawns of the colonizers had more basis when their relationship with colonial powers were too chummy and when they embraced a sort of “Christendom” with church and state getting mixed up too much. As one who likes to minimize my relationship with all governments (a very healthy attitude I am prone to believe), I can see how focusing on one’s role as an ambassador of Christ may mean not dealing with problems that come from a tyrannical and/or corrupt government.

#6. Missionaries have stayed at their posts. With the transition to independent governments in countries that had been under colonial rule… missionaries have typically stayed to work, while other people from the colonial powers have generally left. That does, in some way, point out that their connection and commitment was to the people not the colonizers.

#7. Few missionaries have mourned the passing of the colonial era. Serving in the Philippines, I am thrilled that this nation achieved its full freedom in 1946. Would it have been better if they had gotten their full freedom in 1898? Perhaps, but that is something that cannot be changed. I have actually met a few Filipinos who wish that their country was never separated from the United States, but I can’t share that. I doubt things would have been better.

Part Two we will explore a similar but slightly different issue from Kane’s b

Decline or Refine of the Church

This is just some ramblings of my own. As such, set your expectations rather low. Thank you.

Consider the figure above. Let’s consider it to describe the growth of Christianity in the what could be described as Roman lands in the first few centuries AD. Don’t assume the image is at all accurate. Now imagine that the BLUE line describes the percentage of the population who SELF-IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS CHRISTIANS. Now imagine that the RED line describes the percentage of the population that are TRUE FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST. While I am fully aware that we are not God and so we cannot know who is a true follower of Christ, I think most people in most any religious culture (including non-Christian cultures) can understand the idea that there is a difference between those who affiliate themselves with a religion and those who take their faith seriously.

In the first centuries, there was presumably little difference between the red and blue lines since there was little motivation to align oneself with a politically and economically dis-empowered religion that was, at least sporadically, persecuted. As such, one may assume that perceived growth of the church was quite important from the standpoint of Kingdom expansion.

However, as the fourth century progressed, Christianity gained favor with Roman emperors, such that things switched. It was now advantageous socially and politically to align oneself with Christianity. Money and status flowed into churches, church structures, and hierarchical structures. Some of that increase in percentage of Christians could, presumably, be true followers of Christ. It would, however, seem reasonable to assume that a fair bit of that growth was from those people who changed affiliation due to this shift in power. Certainly the monastic movement and the change of standards regarding who could be baptized at that time suggests that there were many in the church then who were concerned with this change.

Now, one could move forward to a time of Stagnation. That is, the percentage of self-identified Christians tops off and may even begin to decline. One could see this as the church is failing. However, another POSSIBLE interpretation is that the social status of Christianity in the society has lessened, and so some drift away. In this figure, the percentage of true followers of Christ is still increasing.

If one was so inclined one might surmise that the area under the red line (colored pinkish) is the power of God acting in that society. If that is the case, than what would the blue-ish area be? It would be the social power that the church has above and beyond the work of God.

Now you could complain about this sketch and its interpretation… and I think that many complaints would be quite fair.

BUT… there is a principle here that is worth considering. When the church is in decline in percentage of those in affiliation… or when the church is losing social influence in a society… IS THAT A BAD THING?

Maybe it is bad… or maybe not. What may look like a declining of a church can be refining. On the other hand what could be seen as a refining could be a true decline. I am from the US where many Evangelicals are bemoaning losing political influence in the country (and those that hope that ‘stacking the deck’ in the Supreme Court might in some way reverse what seems inevitable. But is the loss of political influence a bad thing? Power can be addicting… and the wrong type of power in the church can reap very bad fruit. Removing the enticement of power and status can lead to a refining of the faithful or a separating of the faithful from the unfaithful (but interacting with the faithful).

Reading the Church History of Eusebius of Antioch, he was simply thrilled that Emperor Constantine had given favored status and social power to Christians. While that wasn’t necessarily bad in some ways… the Church did begin to fall in love with that sort of societal power. In fact, when people complain about religion today, often it is the fascination with and quest for political or societal power by religious groups and leaders that is at or near the top of the list.

I am not attempting to promote a theology of decline. I just would hope that the Church can embrace a role as faithful servants of God and blessers of our (non-Christian) neighbors, rather than hoarders of political and social status and power.

IT IS HARD TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DECLINING AND REFINING.

AND WHEN IS GROWTH NOT ACTUALLY A GOOD THING.

Easter. It’s Okay… Really.

I wrote a post a few years ago called, “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” You can read it by CLICKING HERE.

I am writing this during Holy Week (Maundy Thursday to be exact). Easter is just three days away. The points of my previous post also applies to this holiday. The former post had several points:

  • It is Okay to Christianize a “Pagan” Holiday (Issue of Contextualization). I deal with this in more detail with regards to Christmas. In actuality, Christmas does not actually appear to have sprung up from a pagan holiday, but has been affected by pagan festivities over the centuries. Good contextualization comes from making a connection of the divine with the cultural. In some ways Easter is even less ‘pagan’ than Christmas. Unlike Christmas where the birthday of Jesus is highly speculative, we know fairly precisely when Jesus was crucified and when He rose (especially if utilizing a lunar calendar). Additionally, Easter is connected to the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the other hand, some practices, such as Easter eggs and Easter bunnies have connection to pre-Christian practices (apparently). And regardless of pagan roots, the eggs and bunnies are tied to the cycle of life as both relate to productivity and fertility— issues of special importance in Springtime, especially in Norther temperate climates. A few days ago, I was sent an article that connected Easter to all sorts of pagan practices. Some sure sounded quite… fanciful. some were based on more solid data. However, I am not focusing on the details here because I don’t have problems with “redeeming a holiday.” No day of the year is off-limits to Christian celebration.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate a “Civil” Holiday (Issue of Separation). Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Pentecost Sunday, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday and such are Christian religious holidays. The same can be said of Christmas, Easter, and Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). The difference of these last three is that each of these share their day with a civil holiday of the same name, at least in some parts of the world. Christmas has a civil Christmas that is rather disconnected from its religious anchor. The same can be said of Easter and Mardi Gras. Some are very bothered by this, but there is something quite wonderful in that Christians and non-Christian can join together and celebrate the same day together. Of course, both Mardi Gras and Christmas have civil elements of excess that is quite problematic. It is rather nice that, generally speaking, civil Easter does not have this as much. Yes, candy companies have tried to make Easter a springtime equivalent to Halloween to market various products, but the excess has never been as ridiculous as with the other two. As such, I think it is quite nice that Christian and non-Christian alike can join together on Easter.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate Easter when we do (Issue of Historicity). I know the Eastern and Western churches have separated on when to celebrate Easter. Some wanted to separate Easter from Passover (a rather stupid idea I think). That being said, the key point is that it is meant to be a memorial to the event of Christ’s resurrection. Eusebius of Caesarea spoke in the early part of the 4th century on this matter of Easter. He notes that at that time, there were two “ancient traditions.” (Those today that see Easter as rejected by the early church are certainly guilty of over-simplifying the issue.) In the time of Eusebius, one group saw celebration of Jesus’s resurrection once a week on the Lord’s Day as sufficient. The other believed it good to have a once a year festival (presumably in addition to the Lord’s Day, not a replacement for it. You can read on this HERE. One group does not appear to be better than the other.
  • It is Okay to Celebrate (Issue of Asceticism). I don’t have anything to add from the one on Christmas. However, we should learn to get comfortable with addressing the issue of celebration. I have written on that somewhat: A Theology of Celebration. It is in two parts— PART ONE, and PART TWO.
  • It is Okay not to Listen to me (Issue of Conformity). I recently left an online discussion where one of the participants took great offense that many of the others did not agree with him. He appeared to believe that the rest of us were disagreeing with the Bible. In truth, what we were disagreeing with was his interpretation of the Bible and with the theological construct that he developed, in part, from the Bible. I won’t do that. You can take what I say to heart or not.

I will add one more:

  • It is Okay to Change the Name (Issue of Labeling). Some are concerned by the name Easter because of its non-Christian roots. They prefer the term “Resurrection Sunday.” That is perfectly fine. It certainly reminds us, as Christians, “the reason for the season.” However, I would recommend NOT trying to push this on everyone. As noted before, Easter has the benefit of being a celebration (in many countries) that bridges faiths. As a Christian with Christians, I celebrate Resurrection Sunday, but as a Christian with a more diverse crowd, I can joyously celebrate Easter— that strange holiday that brings together the religious and the mundane.

What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)?— Part 2

Continued from Part One

As noted before, Conservative Christians tend not to want to say “I don’t know” when it comes to Biblical or Theological questions. Some of that may be cultural. Having taught in a rather conservative seminary, I have certainly met my fair share of students who don’t like “wishy-washy” answers to questions. This is especially common with students who have received their training primarily from TV or Radio preachers (or from local pastors trained by those same individuals) who treat their own opinions as canon. There is something pretty shameful in this.

Perhaps no greater rejection of Mystery is found in Theology than Theodicy. This area seeks to explain or “justify” the existence of evil and suffering in a world created and maintained by an omnipotent and benevolent God. People REALLY don’t like to answer “I don’t know” to questions of Theodicy. I recall a class that I was leading where Psalm 44 was being reviewed. This is a wonderful lament with a lot of ambiguity. Bad things are happening without any simple answer as to why. One of my students, a pastor, did not like this at all… and went through a whole lot of mental gymnastics to show how that Psalm was consistent with his own view of suffering. (Fine… that is each person’s right.) Theodicy is not a strength of mine, but being an administrator of a counseling center certainly has led me to dwell on some of these issues more than some. After all, when someone asks, “Why is this happening to me?” after (or during) a crisis, it begs a theological answer. Although not always. Often it is rhetorical, saying, “I am in pain, please listen to me and be with me.” Still, when an answer is actually requested, what are some of the answers you have heard to this sort of question?

  • It is God’s will. (Do we know this? Doesn’t the Lord’s Prayer, and a number of statements of Jesus, suggest that many things happen that are NOT God’s will?)
  • It is for your good. (Again… do we know this? Certainly many things have indeed ‘come together for good,’ but does this mean that God intentionally did something harmful? And what about situations where redeeming the past is not really feasible?)
  • It is for your punishment. (This works for those who believe like Job’s friends that God only gives enjoyable things to those he favors, and only miserable things to those he does not. However, since Job’s friends were wrong, and much of history seems to bring doubt to this as well, it seems best to question this.

The Bible gives many different answers:

#1. Bad things happen to bad people (and good things happen to good people). Those who like this simple principle are attracted to places like Deuteronomy 24-25, and Proverbs.

#2. Bad things happen to good people. 1 Peter and much of the Gospels makes it clear that suffering is an expected result of faithfulness to Christ.

#3. Bad things and Good things happen to good (faithful) people. Read Hebrews 11.

#4. Bad things and Good things happen to both good and bad people. Read Ecclesiastes.

#5. We cannot know why Bad things or Good things happen to good people. Read Job or Psalm 44. Note that even though the book of Job gives a limited answer to us why bad things happened to Job, that information was not shared to him or others.

#6. We really shouldn’t speculate too much on why Bad things happen to people, especially as to whether they are bad or good. Read Christ’s guidance in Luke 13:1-4.

I am sure there are more answers given, and more nuanced variations of these, but just looking these over should make one reticent in giving universal answers to evil and suffering. Nevertheless, there are still attempts to come up with universal answers. One of my supervisees was leading a class where he was teaching different models for Theodicy. He listed four. They are Christian views and so do not include other answers like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I forget the titles, but the following are the descriptions:

Model One. Suffering exists because God chose to give us Free Will, and that freedom of choice has resulted in a lot of bad things happening. This does not really address Natural Disasters very well, in my opinion. I guess this is more of a Reformed theologian favorite.

Model Two. Suffering exists to give us opportunities to grow. This was promoted by John Hick.

Model Three. Suffering exists in a condition of mutuality with God. God suffers with us in our pain. This is promoted by Jurgen Moltmann, along with, I believe, some Liberation Theologians.

Model Four. I believe this is called the Anti-theodicy view, and rejects coming up with a justification for evil and suffering. Rather, one should focus more on what is practical— What should I do with regards to the the existence of suffering and evil?

I tend to gravitate to the fourth one. The others appear to me to be too narrow. However, I really don’t like the name. “Anti-theodicy” to me suggests a turning off of the mind to the searching and reflecting on this issue. That may not be the intent.

I prefer the term “Mystery.” I like the term because I believe it points to two truths.

First, the ancient meaning of mystery refers to what is hidden. The reason/justification for the existence of evil and suffering has not been fully revealed. It may not be that we lack the faith to accept the truth. It may not be that we have not studied hard enough. It may simply be that God has not fully revealed it… only giving us tiny bits and clues.

Second, in the more modern understanding of mystery, it is something that drives a quest for truth. Just because we may not have been informed fully on this topic does not mean we throw up our arms and say that it is hidden and so a waste of time to even think about. Logical Positivists would state that questions that could not be answered in terms of definitions or empirical tests were meaningless. This is a rather lazy way to avoid most of the most interesting questions out there. To simply say that the reason for evil and suffering is hidden to us by God and so it is a waste of time to consider the question is, I feel, rather like the Logical Positivists.

Instead of that, we can recognize that God may have kept this hidden from us. However, that truth should not invalidate the question. We can grow greatly in questions that cannot be completely answered; but we should be very cautious of anyone who has claimed to answer it fully.

I believe there are a lot of mysteries in the Bible. We don’t really know what Heaven is like— is it a natural paradise? Is it a bejeweled city of gold? It is a giant room with a throne in the center? Is it a place of leisurely perfection, unceasing adoration, or of meaningful service? Each of these can be argued true based on very limited clues we are given. What is Hell actually like? Outside of being a place you or I (or anyone for that matter) would want to be (or perhaps cease to be), we only have hints. What are the actual boundaries of God’s grace? Do we absolutely know who is beyond God’s grace?

Mysteries are not necessarily to be answered… but they are to be explored. When we are given an ambiguous answer, we are in effect, being told “This is the whole truth. Stop looking.”

Happy exploring.

What’s Wrong With a Good Mystery (in Theology)? —Part 1

I do enjoy a good mystery novel. I enjoy True Crime podcasts as well. Of these, I particularly like solved crimes. I think solved satisfies my yearning for justice, something that unsolved crimes lack. However, there probably is also a bit of a side to me that just wants to know what is— as Paul Harvey would say— “The REST of the Story.”

This happens in Christian Theology as well. I have heard so many give very dogmatic answers to very good questions that appear to lack a clear unambiguous answer. I have sat in many Bible Studies where the leader (usually it is the leader) struggles to crush a great question with a dogmatic answer. It seems like this is especially true in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. Perhaps it is true of other branches of Christianity as well. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has the Magisterium, and many denominations have creeds and catechisms that exist, in part at least, to avoid giving the answer, “Well, I really don’t know.”

I think in Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity (a land I am more familiar with) the issue is probably tied to Sola Scriptura and “Sufficiency of Scripture.” While Sola Scriptura is historically different from “Sufficiency of Scripture,” in some denominations they have melded together. Quoting from that famous theologian, Wikipedia (in the article, ‘Sola Scriptura’), “Some evangelical and Baptist denominations state the doctrine of sola scriptura more strongly: Scripture is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian Doctrine.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith says something similar,

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”

I don’t really care for the Westminster Confession. The term “deduced from Scripture” appears to me to be a bit cavalier— encouraging people to find clear dogma where there is none. becomes bad when people read into it meanings that were not necessarily intended. Also the broadness of the first part of the sentence is concerning— ‘whole counsel,’ ‘all things necessary’ for glory, salvation, faith and life. The term ‘Life’ is pretty broad. Does the Bible give whole counsel in how to fill out a tax return. No doubt the Bible gives ethical principles and Christians regarding honesty, finances, and relationship to government— but is that the same as ‘whole counsel.’ I am sure the crafters of the confession has a more narrow understanding of the word ‘Life,’ but the term certainly lends itself to abuse. Words can inform, but also confuse. Much like the “T” in TULIP (Total Depravity of Man) does not really mean that everyone is always living in complete depravity (understanding ‘depravity’ in the normal laymen’s use of the term), Sola Scriptura does not really mean “Only Scripture,”— the approximate direct translation of the term. That is part of the reason I prefer “Prima Scriptura” (since I feel it is simply more intellectually honest— no one has EVER theologized or lived out their Christian life through Sola Scriptura).

Why am I talking about this when I am supposed to be talking about Mystery? Because, some people when they hear Sola Scriptura (Only Scripture or Scripture Alone) what they interpret it as is, “The Bible has the answer to every question that I have— I only have to dig deep enough.” This has led to many novel things such as using numerology to figure out secret messages in the Bible to determine the time of the return of Christ. Many have found such secret messages while somehow not seeing the clear statements that Jesus did not know the time, and that we are to be ‘always ready.’ Of course, looking for secret messages goes back to the impulse of the Gnostics of the first few centuries of Christianity: so it is most definitely not a new thing.

I recall a Bible School extension facilitator that refused to use textbooks or other reference books for any of the classes at the center based on the argument that the only book a pastor needs is the Bible. And yet there are many things that a pastor is expected to know and do that are not in the Bible— such as “How to write a sermon,” “How to develop a music ministry,” and “What should be included in a church covenant.” Even the basic question of “What does a Pastor do?” is only answered in a very general way in the Bible. In Pastoral Counseling, there was the Biblical Counseling movement that interpreted Sola Scriptura as “Everything one needs to know about counseling in behavior and in counseling content is in the Bible.” Often this has led to some pretty heavy cherry-picking of Bible verses to try to work around the fact that the Bible is silent on many things.

But we are still not talking about Mystery. Up to this point, I am only talking about the fact that many people think that all answers are in the Bible, when there is no such claim in the Bible. However, you can see how this disconnect can lead to an avoidance of Theological mystery. After all, if a theological question comes up where the answer appears to be “I don’t know,” some would say that simply means one must DIG DEEPER (in Scripture). Sadly, digging deeper often means coming up with theological constructs that are grounded on one’s own preferences and held together with a loose collection of proof-texts. So, to take a question that is important to some people, “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?”, the Bible is stunningly silent. Some don’t leave it at “I don’t know”— a perfectly valid answer— but start suggesting drawing on Genesis one with humans having the breath of life to suggest that dogs have no souls… and therefore cannot be in heaven. Others give a pretty strong affirmative answer to the question based on how wonderful and perfect Heaven is, based on numerous Bible passages, and how could such a place be perfect if one’s favorite pet wasn’t there as well for eternity? The intellectually honest answer is “I Don’t Know and my lack of a definitive answer is NOT because I have not dug deep enough, but because God has (quite intentionally I presume) chosen not to give a definitive answer, but rather to leave it for speculation and mystery.”

Of course, to say that there is not clear answer should not be a call to stop thinking. I believe God has left us a lot of mysteries for our benefit. The benefit is, largely, in our opportunity to explore and to contemplate. Not having a final answer actually adds to the joy, rather than detracting from it.

I will explore this further in PART TWO— with Theodicy as the primary are of consideration.

Spiritual Abuse Collection

Years ago I created several slide presentations on Spiritual Abuse. I am not an expert, but I have a great interest in the topic, and modest experience in it. So, I did some minor updates and have them below.

Part 1. Spiritual Abuse— Characterisits and Methods. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11233222

Part 2. Spiritual Abuse— Abusive Leaders. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235566

Part 3. Spiritual Abuse— Religious Addiction. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11233250

Part 4. Spiritual Abuse— Structures. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235582

Part 5. Spiritual Abuse— Where Is It From. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235587

Part 6. Spiritual Abuse— Treatment. https://www.slideserve.com/embed/11235595

Struggling with the Issue of the “Wrath of God”

I was raised up in a fundamentalist (but not all capitalized FUNDAMENTLIST) church. One of the things I learned is that the death of Christ is to turn away God’s wrath. I was told in college that propitiation was the term meaning to turn away God’s wrath. When I became a little more familiar with Greek, I realize that this seems to be more of a “theological interpretation” of the Greek, “hilastērion” and “hilasmos,” rather than an actual translation of the Greek. Still, in the Bible it is pretty clear that the sacrifice of Christ in some ways remove an impediment to the tangible receipt of God’s favor.

I kind of feel like there is nothing wrong with this basic understanding. HOWEVER, my issues has been in the abuse of the idea.

#1. Excess. I remember reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. I have friends who are big fans of Edwards and his Puritan theology. Since I don’t really embrace the Reformed Tradition, I can’t really see the appeal. Nevertheless, the imagery in the sermon of Edwards is quite memorable. I can still picture in my mind’s eye, myself dangling by a thread as if a detestable spider over the fires of Hell with God looking at me with repugnance, ready to drop me to eternal doom.

There are a lot of problems with this. First, it really makes God to look pretty awful. Some may saw that we are not to judge God (whether awesome or awful), but if we are supposed to love God, it would help if we see something in God that is lovable. Second, it seems to perpetuate with Tritheistic view of God. With Tritheism, there is not a unity of God expressed in three persons, but three persons expressed as three Gods. The imagery looks like there is God the Father entirely repulsed and angry at mankind and looking forward to cast well-deserved judgment on all forever, but then Jesus comes in and spoils the show by showing that He took on the judgment. The imagery makes God look double-minded— almost like the overly-simplified view that the God of the OT is angry and judgmental, while the God of the NT is merciful and loving. (Had a friend who tried to reconcile this seeming contradiction by pointing out all the places in the NT where God is angry and judgmental. I feel a better direction is to show all the places in the OT that God is merciful and loving.) But if we accept a Trinitarian understanding of God, then God is not “at odds” with Himself.

And what are the ramifications to a Trinitarian understanding of God as it relates to propitiation (and expiation if you want)? For one, God is apparently not as consumed by wrath regarding sin as we may be tempted to think. This is not suggesting that God approves of sin, or that sin has no divine consequences. However, the “wrath of God” regarding sin and how God “cannot look upon sin” is probably more metaphoric. Why? Because Jesus, ‘in very nature God, lived on earth for 33 years without living in deep anger. There are one a couple of times when Jesus was described as angry and neither was about behavior that we would typically describe as ‘sin.’ The most common emotion noted in the Gospels for Jesus was compassion. Compassion is essentially love and empathy that motivates a behavioral response.

A second ramification of a Trinitarian understanding of God is that the metaphor of justification (the court room with God the Father as judge and Jesus as mediator) is just that… a metaphor. And metaphors always break down when you try to reify them. The Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) are not at odds. They are all on the same side. In line with Missio Dei theology, the Father sent the Son into the World, and both sent the Holy Spirit into the World, for our salvation due to God’s love and benevolence.

ἱλασμὸν (Hilasmos), the word that is used mostly for “propitiation” is found twice in the New Testament, both by John. It is found in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10. (It seems like ‘Hilasterion’ is more commonly translated as ‘expiation.’

Let’s look at 1 John 2:2 for a moment. I would like to start with the Amplified Version.

And He [that same Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins [the atoning sacrifice that holds back the wrath of God that would otherwise be directed at us because of our sinful nature—our worldliness, our lifestyle]; and not for ours alone, but also for [the sins of all believers throughout] the whole world. -1 John 2:2 (Amplified)

Now let’s look at the same verse in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. -1 John 2:2 (CSB)

While there are values to the Amplified Bible, I think, I believe you can see here one of the risks. Essentially, the Amplified version tries to force this verse into a theological framework. There is nothing in the verse about the wrath of God, unless one understands the term “wrath of God” as simply a colorful way of referring to “God’s judgment.” The verse doesn’t really have anything to do with sinful nature. In fact, the broader passage is about the call to live obediently according to the will of God. It is possible to surmise that our need for atonement comes from our sinful nature, but it is simply not spoken of in this verse. Frankly, later on the Amplified limits to sacrifice of Christ to all believers. Not sure if the paraphrasers of the Amplified were 5-point Calvinists and so felt that the work of Christ was only done ‘for the elect,’ or whether they were simply trying to avoid people assuming a sort of salvific Universalism. Regardless, it seems to me that the additions to the verse is presumptive at best, and arguably quite manipulative.

1 John 4:10

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [that is, the atoning sacrifice, and the satisfying offering] for our sins [fulfilling God’s requirement for justice against sin and placating His wrath]. -1 John 4:10 (Amplified)

Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. -1 John 4:10 (CSB)

The Amplified version is not so egregious here, but definitely assumes that propitiation is tied to ‘wrath,’ even though it is doesn’t really appear to (unless, again, one is using the term as short-hand for God’s judgment). The Amplified also seems to push for a Penal Substitutionary Atonement perspective of the atonement. I think that is somewhat justified, although I think the atonement is a concept much bigger than what can be fit into one theory/perspective. The CSB avoids the problem the same way it did in 1 John 2:2 where Hilasmos was translated at atoning sacrifice— leaving a lot of room for mystery.

Ultimately, a Trinitarian understanding of Propitiation does not show a God overcome by wrath, needing blood to appease Him. Rather, we find a God overcome by love who seeks to demonstrate that love in a remarkable act of self-sacrifice— providing a way to restoration of God’s favor (expiation) and away from judgment (propitiation).

I noticing that I am spending more time on Propitiation than on God’s Wrath. However, in many of the passages in the Bible that describes God’s wrath, the term seems to be used as a substitute for God’s judgment. In some ways that is not an issue. However, if the term is most commonly used as another way of speaking of God’s judgment, then images such as the one I described from Jonathan Edwards falls apart. God’s judgement does not flow from God’s wrath. Rather God’s judgment is something That God desires not to impose due to His love. If the dominant character of God, according to Jesus is that God is love, that seems appropriate. God’s love doesn’t mean that He may not mete out judgment, but rather that it is never His desire to do so.

<If this post sounds a bit ‘all over the place,’ I apologize. I am wrestling with some theological stuff that is outside of my own specialization. As such, this wrestling is going to be a bit messy. I haven’t settled on a fully reconciled understanding. However, if we take the two NT passages that use Hilasmos, it is clear the focus is squarely on God’s love, not wrath.>

Churches That Make Avoiding Church Not Seem So Bad

I have heard it said that if you are a REAL Christian, then you will, of course, want to join together as believers in church. And I have been in situations where I could really relate to this. I remember being in the US Navy (a culture with its share of toxicity) and going to church or Bible study was a great joy. I have seen Christians living in predominantly non-Christian cultures who joyously use up their only day off from work just to join together with other Christians at Church and Bible training.

But I have also seen the other side of things. I have seen churches that seem to diverge so greatly from a place of healing and joy that one wonders why people actually show up. I have been to those churches as well. And while such a feeling rightly should lead me to self-reflection about my spiritual life… I think it is safe to say that sometimes the problem is the church.

I must admit that my attitude about churches has changed a bit. I am in missions and so I often have gotten frustrated at churches that seem to do nothing. I have often thought of how wonderful it would be if a church was filled with Christians who were so on fire for God that it outflows with missional fervor. I have tended to look down on churches that could be labeled (in a condescending manner) as a “Social Club Church” focused on potluck dinners rather than on the Kingdom of God.

And while I haven’t completely rejected my concerns, I have to admit that I have had to rethink things a bit over the years. In line with that, here are a few churches that are worse than a “Social Club Church.”

Abusive Boyfriend Church

This is the church that everyone knows to avoid. Every woman knows that an abusive boyfriend is a bad thing. However, abusive boyfriends rarely start out that way. Often it starts with respect and love-bombing. However, the love-bombing is done to establish the relationship. And once the relationship is established, the toxic side expresses itself. The new members of the church gradually have greater and greater burdens placed on them. The leadership becomes coercive. The church body seeks to dominate the time of the member and feels betrayed by anything less than total commitment. Emotional and spiritual manipulation will be put on the members to ensure that they don’t leave— sometimes threatening their (eternal) life if they leave. Theologically orthodox or not, they operate under the patterns that have been generally thought of as defining “cults.” It is better for a Christian to stay home on Sunday than to stay in that relationship.

Church of Procrustes

One of the stories from Greek mythology is about Procrustes. Procrustes had a bed that purportedly was a perfect fit for any guest. But the “Bed of Procrustes” succeeded in being a perfect fit by SSSTRRRRETTTTCCCHHH-ing a person who would other wise be too short, or lopping off body parts that don’t fit in a person too tall.

Some churches want everyone to be the same. While few churches truly embrace the Biblical ideal of many different members united without uniformity, some take it further by pushing to have everyone operate by the same system, involved in the same activities, and judged by the same standards. Personally, I have seen this most clearly in Cell Churches. The system is simple but not generally very flexible. There is one way in and one way up. It often works well with high schoolers and college age because it is simple and they have the malleability of youth, but the MLM (multi-level marketing) churning does not fit everyone. Some try to adjust, some get stuck, and some drift away. I do wonder if some “Simple Church” models also have a similar problem. In truth, however, all churches have a tendency for this. I was part of a church years ago that had two main ministries. You could be part of Ministry A, or you could be part of Ministry B, or you could simply show up on Sundays for a church that really has no place for you.

While the Church of Procrustes clearly works for some people, it is quite clearly a “sub-biblical” assembly.

Human-Doing Church

For good or for bad, church leaders often see themselves as “vision people.” And of course, associated with having vision is commonly a desire to see the vision turned into reality. That is done through people. It is always a temptation to see the members of the church as “worker bees” whose reason for existing is to carry out the vision. The value of the members is in what they do, rather than who they are.

Often there can be a tendency to confuse “serving God” with “serving our specific church.”

I have sometimes been unhappy that churches are not enough like parachurches— made up of people with drive and vision. But parachurches are too narrow in scope to be a church. Churches are broad, diverse, and messy. That is a good thing.

NLOC Church

All churches are special in some way. They are all unique. However, some embrace their uniqueness uniquely. They are NLOC (‘not like other churches’) churches. They may see their uniqueness in terms of being better than anyone else. They value stealing members from other churches. They struggle to play in the same sandbox with other churches. Some may see their uniqueness in their special dubious spin on theology or Bible interpretation. They commonly reject the catholicity of the church and in some cases are particularists (they have a special in with God that others don’t).

That attitude is toxic and certainly not good for the members.

Fed Up Church

Some churches are simply angry, mean-spirited, judgy. Commonly, the church is reflecting the attitude of the pastor or pastoral staff. Westboro Baptist is kind of the best known of this type, but there are other flavors. Some are angry about goverrnmental politics that don’t give them special privileges. Others may not appear angry until a person visits the church of a different race, ethnicity, region, sexual preference/orientation, etc.. One might call this church a Pharisaical church, but that is really unkind to pharisees. Most were commendable. However, outsiders remember Pharisees much the way they think of churches— that is, in terms of the most angry and judgmental.

A church should be a diverse community… a family. It should be less know for what it does than what it is. As such, a church that is well-known for being a place of warm welcome and potluck dinners (“love feasts”) is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a need to do more… but it is a good foundation.

I know that it is often said that the main purpose of the church is Worship. Perhaps that is true… but “worship” often gets converted into something very narrow. Perhaps it is best to say that the church’s main purpose is to Glorify God. Some people think they can worship by singing especially loud, or perhaps dancing or fasting or who knows what. And that may be true to some extent. But we glorify God when we dwell as brothers and sisters in Christ in the harmony of God’s kingdom.

An unhealthy church may be able to worship in some way, but it cannot glorify God.