What I Believe: Common Marriage

What follows is a letter that I wrote to Touchstone magazine and that was printed in their May/June 2016 issue. The post following this one will tell you my beliefs concerning Christian marriage.

David J. Theroux in his article “Higher-Order Marriage” (Touchstone January/February 2016) showed us that Martin Luther was wiser than we might have otherwise known. He writes that Luther believed marriage should be a function of the civil government. Now, why might Luther think that? Well, if we go back before Jesus, Moses, Abraham, and Noah we arrive at Adam and Eve and the first marriage. Marriage was given to our first ancestors as a common good for all of humanity. It occurred in a manner open to the whole human race: cohabitation.

Theroux’s argument that Christian marriage is a higher-order relationship is true—and a truism. Everything of Christianity is a higher order of living. However, this does not deprive others of the common goods God has provided for the human race. For marriage to be available to all male/female couples it must be a function given to the civil authorities for they are the only institutions with universal jurisdiction. This I think might have been Luther’s logic.

Our civil authorities have failed in their responsibilities to God in the realm of marriage, and in many other ways. They will pay the price. In the meantime, I think we need to look very carefully at ourselves to see if we have pushed people away from finding a higher-order marriage in our churches by raising too high the standard required for a valid marriage.

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What I Believe: Election and Divine Calling

The problem here for me is how to reconcile election and divine calling with the freedom of human will. This has been a problem in theology for a long time. As for me, I am very fond of election because I know I never would have had a chance to become a child of God without it.

Election

Election is always for God’s purposes but it is not always about redemption, as we normally think of it. The Old Testament contains numerous examples of elections in both directions. Joseph was elected to save Israel from starvation while Nebuchadnezzar was elected to destroy Jerusalem and send the Israelites into exile. In turn, another pagan ruler, Cyrus, was elected for the return of the exiles, and the rebuilding of the city and the Temple.

Eleven of the twelve apostles were elected to do Christ’s work on earth and then go on to eternal glory. One was elected for infamy on earth and annihilation as his eternal destiny. Jesus said of Judas that it would have been better for him if he had never been born.

Those who are elected will eventually do what God wills them to do. Even if as in the case of the Egyptian pharaoh, it takes ten plagues. Or as it was with Jonah a whale of an adventure.

Apparent Contradictions

Election and divine calling do not negate human will. No one comes to Christ or rejects him except by his or her own choice. So how can God ensure that people make the choice he means them make. This seems a hard problem unless we believe that God is active in our world. Once we accept that, we can see there is no limit to the forms of persuasion that can be applied to convince one of the elect to choose what he or she had always been meant to choose. Human will is malleable not sovereign. On the other hand God can leave those who reject him to have what they desire—the absence of God. In either case, God’s will is certain to be accomplished. Thus we rightly pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven and, sure enough, it is.

Universal Offer

As to the question of why Christ’s work needed to be sufficient for all humanity although not everyone would avail their selves of the offer. I believe this is to ensure that no one who rejects God or willfully believes in false religions, philosophies or ideologies can claim that they were not able to be redeemed.

Jesus’ work on earth in its power and scope was sufficient that anyone who seeks God will find redemption. This is because they are one of the elect. This means that those who refuse to seek God, as they should because of the evidence of God’s work and creation all around them, are responsible for their earthly and eternal destinies.

The gospel and the entire message of Christ are to be brought by Christians to as many people as possible that they might be encouraged to do in regard to God what they are responsible for doing. Those who do not have an opportunity to receive the gospel will be, I believe, judged rightly according to how each of those persons would have responded to the gospel. Justice will be done in each case.

Effectual Divine Calling

Each person who comes to an effective faith is Christ arrives there by a different chain of experience. This is not to say all paths lead to God. There is one Way and each of us walks on our own portion of that narrow road.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit that gets us on the right road by convicting us of our sins and enlightening us in regard to the actually of Jesus. Then, at the proper time, I believe, we are brought to offer our lives to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Our offering will be accepted, as Jesus promised, and we will be received, redeemed, and reconciled. The other good things of the Christian life will start happening at that point.

What I Believe: Interpretation

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24 ESV). I interpret these verses as providing a basis for our interpretation of Scripture although there are other meanings in them and other verses that guide interpretation. I believe the interpretation of biblical passages must enhance our understanding of the reality of spiritual things and bring us closer to a fuller knowledge of God’s revelation.

This does not mean we should not use such wisdom as has been provided us by others who have worked at interpreting Scripture. Interpretation is such a complex subject it has its own name—hermeneutics. The article in my Bible dictionary says interpretation is both an art and a science. Science begins with accurate observation and in interpretation this would mean, as far as possible, correctly reading the passage. From there we go on to context, comparison with other Scripture, other people’s interpretations and whatever we have learned from interpreting other passages.

There are rules for interpretation. These serve the same purpose as what are called the laws of nature do in the physical sciences. They put bounds on what are legitimate interpretations.

The art of interpretation is the work of the Holy Spirit as we pray for guidance and meditate on the possible meanings to see as much as God would have us see in a particular passage. Art is not static so what we may not understand originally may become clear as we continue to seek understanding.

What I Believe: Inerrancy

A typical statement concerning the inerrancy of the Bible reads “The Scriptures are without error in the original autographs.” The problem with this statement arises in Scripture itself. We read about what happened to one original autograph in Jeremiah 36:23 (ESV) “As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot.” (The complete story of this event is contained in Jeremiah 36:15-30). Fortunately for us and others, that manuscript was rewritten and we have many other prophecies and stories from the life of Jeremiah.

We do not know what happened to the other original autographs but we do know that none of them are now available to scholars. We do know that Jesus and the apostles had confidence in the reliability of the copies of Scriptures they knew, whether in Hebrew or in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

What would we do if we had an inerrant Bible? I think we might concentrate too much on the content of the Bible and too little on developing the proper relationships we should have with each Person of the Trinity. My own tendency would be to (figuratively) beat up my fellow Christians with the certainty of my own interpretations. An inerrant Bible would be no easier to understand in all its passages than the one we have.

We need to be helped in our spiritual growth and I am not sure an inerrant Bible would not just make our love of physical religion, all the things we do, even stronger and make meditation and contemplation even less a part of our lives. I believe God knew what he was doing when he made even the tablets of the Ten Commandments unavailable for our worship.

I believe that it is not the content and form of the original manuscripts that should be of major concern to us but that we have the living word of God in the documents we do have. Thus, we can celebrate the revelation that has been preserved for us.

What I Believe: Inspiration

When we use the word “inspiration” we are using the English form of the verb inspiro which comes from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. The form of the word might make us think that God did something to words that already existed. However, the Greek word theopneustos used in the New Testament means “God-breathed.” This should remind us of the work of the Holy Spirit in physical creation. In other words, Scripture is a creation of God and can be compared to physical creation as a mystery of God’s intentions.

The common source, the Holy Spirit, of both the Old and New Testaments is shown by the linkages between them. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament cited the Old Testament as foundational to an understanding of the new covenant that Jesus had brought into existence.

I regard “The Holy Scriptures are the only sufficient, certain, and infallible standard of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Luke 16:29, 31; Ephesians 2:20).” If this is true, then inspiration is how they got that way.

Inspiration is inextricably intertwined with special revelation and providence. Let me illustrate. Paul’s letters were written to various people and groups of people at different places and times. The circumstances that prompted his writing resulted from the working of God’s providence. The teaching of Christianity, particularly when Paul used the word mystery, was him transmitting the special revelations he received from Jesus Christ. However, when Paul wrote letters he did not intend to create Scripture. That part of it is the Holy Spirit shaping Paul’s writings to Christ’s purposes.

Inspiration is the work of the Holy Spirit in the creation of each of the books. Each book has a unique history of its formation. Jeremiah received God’s special revelation and Baruch wrote it down to give us the book of Jeremiah. The Psalms are an anthology of Jewish music presumably assembled by one of the leaders of the Temple singers. Inspiration guided the selection of songs to be included—special revelation and providence provided the songs.

There are other people who contributed to the coming into existence of the books of the canon in addition to the people whose names are on the books or who are credited with their writing. These are the scribes, collators, copyists, editors, redactors, and all others who contributed to providing us the Holy Bible. These also were inspired by the Holy Spirit. “As inspired, the Scriptures were not produced by human will (2 Peter 1:21).”

I believe grace provides us with the faith we need to understand the inspired words of the Bible. For instance, as new Christians we may have found a favorite verse that had a special meaning for us at that stage of our Christian walk. Perhaps, after a long walk of faith we will find in the begats (those listings of ancient lineages) a richness that eluded us when we first encountered them in our Bible reading. I believe God energizes his Word through the faith and needs of its readers. Where there is much faith there is much finding of inspiration. Where there is no faith we get things such as courses like “The Bible As Literature.”

What I believe is that without faith no one can discover the inspiration of Scripture just as no one can know creation without faith (Hebrews 11:3). This does not excuse anyone for not seeking to find the truth of God’s word in the Bible any more than there is any exemption for people who do not seek God in creation from their responsibility to worship him.

 

What I Believe: Creation

Creation is a very complex subject. I believe God did create the heavens and the earth (and everything else) but not in six twenty-four hour days. I think creation required a long line of incremental steps and also time for created objects to mature to the state needed to make the earth suitable for human habitation. Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3 tells us of God setting the stage for the story. It should not be over-interpreted as a description of all of creation. It is after all a rather short poem and I believe that it, like most poetry, cannot be interpreted literally. That said, there are two significant aspects of it. One is that everything physical in it is real and we have either experienced them or know about them. This led Isaac Newton to think that the passage was a description of end points of God’s creative actions. The second aspect is more subtle. I believe that breaking up the account of creation into days reflects the reality of the world we know coming into existence by stages.

 

This does not mean that I believe in evolution in any way, shape or form. Éttienne Gilson, a French philosopher, wrote in 1975, “Evolution is bad science and worse philosophy.” Since then, the science of evolution has gotten worse due to the vast increase of knowledge in the field of microbiology and the ideology of evolution has gone down several different paths.

 

The evolutionists have one thing, I think, that keeps them in the arena of evolutionist/creationist controversy. That is that life on earth has a long history. This is true even if some of the past and present scientific ideas about the age of the earth and how we got to the present will probably end up some day on a “blooper reel.”

 

We are told many times in Scripture about God’s propensity for creation What we are not told is how he does it.

What I Believe: The Story

The Bible tells, in sixty-six books, the story of God’s relationship to humanity. The story begins before the creation of the earth and ends in eternal blessedness for those people whom he has redeemed. There are three major themes that continue throughout the story. These are God’s creation of all that exists, the disobedience of the first humans and the consequences of that for all of physical reality, and God’s work to make right (redeem) according to his purposes all that has gone wrong. Redemption is a long and complex project and, I believe, cannot be finished in the framework of our present reality.