Monthly Archives: October 2015

“From Everlasting to Everlasting You Are God!”

Christianity teaches that God’s greatness is beyond expression in human words. Search creation for great creatures, survey the thesaurus of human language, and strain the imagination to the limit and you will not find an adequate rendering or a fitting analogy for God’s infinite perfection. God possesses the perfection of all creatures combined, and more. But the Lord of all suffers none of creation’s imperfection. God does not live his life divided by time and space. The past is not dim, nor the present spread out in space, nor the future dark. God is light, and his presence illuminates all creatures great and small.

Hence the language of Christian worship and theology combines two types of expression about God. The first affirms God’s possession of all the perfection found in creatures: the glory of the heavens, the power of the storm, the light of human reason, the best of human love, the stability of the mountains, the tenderness of a good mother, the protection of good father; indeed every creature bears some likeness to its Creator. For God made all things good! However, since no creature possesses any good quality to the same degree and in the same way that God possesses it, Christian worship and theology also use the language of negation. We say that God is like but also unlike a rock. God lives like living creatures but also unlike living creatures. We use words like “beyond” or “transcendent” or “surpassing” or “excelling” or “super” to say that God is greater than anything we can experience or image. And we use negative prefixes (in, im, un, a) to negate qualities we consider imperfect.

Time, movement, and change; appearing, growth, and death. These are qualities all creatures possess, and they have positive as well as negative aspects. Apart from time we would not exist, and no one wants to “run out of time.” For us, time and being go together. But living in time means that the past is gone, the present is fleeting, and the future is uncertain. Movement and change can mean advance and improvement. But they can also bring decline and death. As I said above, God possess the perfection of all creatures and none of the imperfections. God possesses being, which is associated with time, but God does not suffer separation, decline, or death. The language of worship exclaims,

“Before the mountains were born

or you brought forth the whole world,

from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by,

or like a watch in the night.” (Ps 90:2-4).

And God’s uniqueness is lauded in these words from 1 Timothy:

“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen” 1Timothy 6:15-16).

God lives and reigns “from everlasting to everlasting”! This biblical expression emphasizes God’s immortality, his complete immunity from needing to come into being or the possibility of dying. Unlike creatures, God does not depend on any other power for his life. To the contrary, all other powers depend on him for their existence. God is his being and life. Or we could say, God is being and life itself. To generalize the biblical claim that God lives “from everlasting to everlasting,” we can say that God does not suffer any of the negative aspects of time that afflict creatures but possesses and surpasses all the positive aspects of time that bless creatures. So, to gain a deeper understanding of God’s everlastingness we need to remove from our conception of God’s life all the negative aspects of time but leave the positive aspects and surpass them.

And this has already been done by the church fathers and summed up by the Latin Christian writer Boethius. He articulated a definition of God’s eternity that almost all theologians accept until this day. (Some do not accept it, and I will deal with them in another post.) Before I quote Boethius, however, I will quote a passage from Paul that speaks of God as eternal:

“Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Romans 16:25-27).

In verse 26, Paul speaks of God as “the eternal God.” He uses a Greek word that could be translated “the ages” or “a long time.” In fact, in verse 25 the same Greek word is translated “ages.” Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers use this term (Greek aionios) when speaking of “eternal life” to mean unending life or immortality. When used of God it is probably not meant in the Platonic sense of timelessness but in the Old Testament sense of “everlasting to everlasting.” With that said, I shall quote Boethius:

“The common opinion, according to all men living, is that God is eternal. Let us therefore consider what is eternity… Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life. This will appear more clearly if we compare it with temporal things. All that lives under the conditions of time moves through the present from the past to the future; there is nothing set in time which can at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. It cannot yet comprehend tomorrow; yesterday it has already lost. And in this life of today your life is no more than a changing, passing moment…What we should rightly call eternal is that which grasps and possesses wholly and simultaneously the fullness of unending life, which asks naught of the future, and has lost naught of the fleeting past; and such an existence must be ever present in itself to control and aid itself, and also must keep present with itself the infinity of changing time” (The Consolation of Philosophy).

Admittedly, neither the Old nor the New Testament articulates God’s relationship to time in this philosophical way. They do not define eternity as the “simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life.” But the early church saw this definition implicit in the way the Bible speaks about God’s immortality and everlastingness. Boethius carries out the project of affirming the positive qualities of time but removing the imperfections, which is certainly what the Biblical writers intend to affirm. In this sense Boethius merely restates the biblical affirmation that God is everlasting in a way that avoids misunderstanding it to imply everlasting change, growth, and dependence.

Hence, when in worship we affirm God’s everlastingness or eternity we can put our whole souls into our praise because we know that we are attributing to God all the perfections of temporal creatures and none of the defects. We can rejoice that the immortal God is fully capable of enabling us to share in his eternal life because he is completely free from time’s power! Time wears us down, and our fleeting lives come to an end. But God is as much the Lord of time as he is the Lord of everything else! With our brother Paul can joyfully exclaim, “to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”

Advertisements

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”

It might seem obvious, but I think it is worth our time to note that Christianity teaches that God really exists. It does not present evidence or offer proofs for God’s existence because it rarely contemplates the possibility of atheism. The existence of a supernatural realm was self-evident to most ancient people, and atheism was rare. Psalm 53:1 is a possible exception: “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” And perhaps the writer of Hebrews had atheism in mind when he said, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (11:6). Overwhelmingly, however, the issue for both the Old and New Testament is not the existence of a god but question of the true nature and identity of God. Isaiah asserts,

I look but there is no one—     no one among the gods to give counsel,     no one to give answer when I ask them. 29 See, they are all false!     Their deeds amount to nothing;     their images are but wind and confusion (Isaiah 41:28-29).

John speaks of the true God as the one we have come to know through Jesus:

20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

Paul opposes the idols and gods of Corinth to the one God who is the Father:

We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

The first affirmation of the Apostles Creed asserts, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” In the Creed, God is identified as “the Father Almighty” and as the Creator. The expression “the Father” is short for “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Interestingly, in his speech to the Athenians Paul also used this brief two-fold way of identifying the God of Christians. He asserted that “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24), and then he drew two inferences from that truth, which he assumes his audience also accepted. (1) God does not need to live in temples made by human hands or to be served by human beings because he made everything and gives “life and breath and everything else” to us (17:24-25). God is self-sufficient and needs nothing! Any concept of God that assumes or implies God’s dependence on creation or any lack in God is severely defective. (2) Since human beings are the image of God, the Creator in whose image we are made cannot and ought not to be reduced to an idol of gold or silver. If we are alive, free, aware, and active, how much more our Creator! Paul reasons here from the widely held belief that the God is the creator of our world to a concept of God worthy of God’s great work of creation.

Next he speaks of the revelation of God’s character and power in Jesus Christ and of his resurrection from the dead:

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

Paul names and specifies the Creator by his connection to Jesus Christ. Christ will be the Judge and standard by which God judges the world. I will return to this way of identifying God in future posts. For now I want to extend Paul’s reasoning to other divine qualities that are implicit in the belief that God is “the Maker of heaven and earth.”

In the Bible and in Christian history, creation is the chief example of God’s power. Traditional theology speaks of God’s “omnipotence” because consistency with our confession of God as Creator demands it. The power God demonstrated in creation is not like the power of the Sun, human technology or political organization or any other power within creation. God created the world from nothing. In creating, God gives creatures their total being and existence. No creature can do that. The reason God’s power is called “omnipotence” is that all other powers owe their being and power to God; apart from God they can do nothing.

If God is the creator of “heaven and earth”, that is, of everything, then God has to be everywhere and know everything. God is the cause of all existence, and existing creatures are the effects of God’s causality. And where the effect is, the cause must also be. Hence the Creator must be omnipresent. But the Creator must also be omniscient, that is, God must know all things. God certainly knows what he is and does. And there is no creature that is not the result of God’s doing. Hence God knows all creatures in their total being and doing.

You can see why in his discussion of the Creator Paul quoted the pagan philosopher Epimenides approvingly:For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Creator is present and active everywhere. God surrounds, indwells, sustains and empowers us. God provides everything we need. Hence we ought to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27).

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” What an amazing confession! How it would revolutionize our lives if we really understood it and lived by it. We are surrounded, indwelt, enfolded, sustained and empowered by the Almighty Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

When Did “Doctrine” Become a Four Letter Word?

Doctrine has fallen on hard times among mainstream Christian churches. Liberal churches have disparaged doctrine for at least a hundred years. By “doctrine” they meant the traditional orthodox doctrines that asserted miracles, original sin, the incarnation and atonement, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and others. According to Liberal churches, modern people schooled in natural science and critical history can no longer believe these teachings, and such controversial teachings distract attention from the liberal agenda of progressive moral advance in society. (For more on the idea of Liberal Christianity, see my essays on Liberal Christianity posted on August 01 and 08, 2015). In the first half of the Twentieth Century Liberalism was opposed by traditional believers who defended the orthodox doctrines mentioned above. But even within conservative Christian circles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries there were revival and evangelistic movements that down played “denominational” doctrines so that they could more effectively evangelize the unchurched. That is to say, the practical concerns of evangelism and church growth nudged evangelists and pastors toward minimizing doctrines that were not directly related to conversion and salvation. Requiring prospective church members to consider and adopt many doctrines would distract them from making a “decision for Christ.” Hence in their own way many conservative opponents of Liberal Christianity down played doctrine.

We can see many of these same forces at work in 2015. Liberal churches still reject orthodoxy and continue to pursue a mission of social change according to progressive philosophy. Many evangelical churches continue to put a high priority on church growth and churching the unchurched. Of course the methods of attracting people into churches have changed. Over the last years I have noticed an increase in two areas: offers of social support and exciting “worship experiences.” Instead of evangelistic “crusades” or revival meetings churches provide a full spectrum of social programs that appeal to young families with children, singles and other affinity groups. And they spend huge amounts of money and energy to provide moving experiences of worship and uplifting messages from the pastor. Doctrine does not fit well into this picture. And it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of years of doctrinal neglect. People may eventually begin asking themselves, “Why are we here?”

So, what is doctrine? The English word “doctrine” derives from a Latin-based word that means “teaching.” Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds. In his “great commission” recorded in Matthew 28, Jesus commanded his disciples to go to the nations, baptizing people and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (v. 20). The apostles remembered Jesus’ teaching and passed it on. They also taught about what happened to Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. They explained how his death and resurrection affect us and how we are to relate to the Lord Jesus Christ. The church “devoted” itself the “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The New Testament is the record of the apostles’ teaching and the apostles’ memories of Jesus’ teaching. Preaching is simply a particular way of teaching. The gospel is not opposed to doctrine. The gospel is the first and the most important thing that must be taught.

Doctrine, that is, Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching, informs us about certain historical events and their meaning, about the right way to live in the world, and about God’s promises. The Bible teaches about God’s nature and identity, about the identity and work of Jesus Christ, about sin and salvation, about the church and her sacraments. Christian doctrine instructs us about whom to trust, for what to hope and how to love. It teaches us how to use our bodies and souls and tongues. The task of the church is to continue to teach and live the full range of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching. We do not have the right to limit teaching only to areas that are consistent with progressive culture, as do Liberal churches. Nor do we have a right to focus only on the “exciting” “affirming” and “uplifting” teachings as do many evangelical churches. To church the unchurched should not mean simply getting them in a worship assembly three or four times a month. It means to work toward re-forming them in the image of Jesus Christ. It means to help them to know and rely on all the promises of God, to engage them in the practices Jesus and the apostles taught us: prayer, the supper of the Lord, baptism, listening to the Word of God and confession.

But doctrine is boring, some say. No! Some teachers of doctrine are boring. But everything Jesus’ and the apostles’ taught is exciting, revolutionary and challenging! When various teachings get separated from the heart of the good news of how much God loves us and has done for us in Jesus Christ, then, yes, they are onerous and boring. But if we keep clearly and steadily in mind that doctrine—every doctrine!—is about who God is or what God has done for us or how God’s love can become a real power in our lives or how we can live in this world in faith and hope and love, then each and every morsel of teaching (doctrine) will be like honey in our mouths, wisdom for our minds, and energy for our souls!

Can God Fail? Six Points of God’s Providence

Theologians speak about God’s action in relation to the world in various ways depending on what aspect they are discussing: creation, providence, reconciliation or redemption. Some writers give the impression that these different aspects are really separate acts each with its own quality and way of acting. In my view, this separation produces many misunderstandings, such as the common idea that after God creates creatures he must change the way he relates to them. In contrast, I consider it very important to understand each of these four aspects as ways to understand the one God-creature relationship. In creation God begins, in providence God continues, in reconciliation God corrects, and in redemption God perfects creation. From beginning to end the same God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, acts toward creation in view of his eternal plan, the perfection and glorification of creation.

Given my view of the unity of God’s action in creation, you won’t be surprised to learn that I define providence as “that aspect of the God-creation relationship in which God so orders and directs every event in the history of creation that God’s eternal purpose for creation is realized perfectly(The Faithful Creator, pp. 209-210). I see six major points in this definition that need explaining in detail.

(1) “Providence is not a totally separate series of divine acts but an aspect of the one God-creature relationship.” God is eternal, his act of creation is eternal, and his providence is eternal. But the results of that act are temporal. We live our lives in time and experience God’s one eternal act of creation and providence in time. God’s eternity encompasses time but is not limited by time.

(2) Providence is God’s own personal action, not delegated to angels or left to impersonal causes. In Christianity, all God’s actions in relation to creation are understood to be from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. God needs no non-divine or quasi-divine mediators in order to be our creator and providential guide. God uses creatures, nature, natural law and human agents. God can work through them, and they are real causes of their effects. But God is not restricted by them in what he can do through and with them. Creatures do not stand between God and the work God accomplishes through them. If God uses a physician to heal or a teacher to inform, God is just as close and just as effective as he would be if worked without them.

(3) God “orders and directs” the history of creation, not leaving creation to chance or fate or misguided freedom. The Faithful Creator explains this point in these words:

“That God “orders and directs” the history of creation means that God brings it about that the created world is and remains the world God intended it to be and that in all worldly events, processes, and free acts God brings it about that his will is achieved… When the Bible affirms God as the creator, it does not mean that God created matter and left it to form a universe by pure chance. Nor does it mean that God created matter and the laws of physics and left them to form a universe by a combination of chance and necessity. It does not mean that God created matter, the laws of physics, and an initial order and let them explore their more constrained but still infinite possibilities by chance. No, when the Bible affirms that God is the creator of heaven and earth it means that God created the order we now experience, the ones that came before and those that will follow until God has created the definitive order in realization of God’s eternal plan. God was, is, and will be the creator of heaven and earth. Hence a robust view of divine creation and a robust view of divine providence stand or fall together.” (The Faithful Creator, pp. 217-218).

(4) Divine providence covers every event in the history of creation, great and small, good and bad, contingent and necessary. God is the creator of everything that has being to any degree. And “events” are the coming to be of new states of creation. God orders and directs—indeed God gives being and sustains—every event no matter how it comes to be. Great and small are relative terms. What seems small at one time may grow in significance with perspective, and what seems great may diminish with time. What seems good in the moment may not work to our ultimate good in the long run, and what seems bad in the moment may be the thing we need to set us on the right path to our ultimate glorification. And what seems to originate exclusively in chance or free human acts can be and will be indwelt, ordered and directed by God according to his plan. God cares about the little stuff, and no power can separate us from his loving care.

(5) God’s eternal purpose guides God’s providential work. God does not need to adjust his plan or improvise in response to unexpected events. Many contemporary writers on providence view God as living in time and responding to events as they occur without being able to anticipate fully what will happen next. I reject this idea as inconsistent with the biblical doctrine of creation and with the promises found in the biblical doctrine of providence. God truly relates to us every moment and in every situation and always responds perfectly. God relates to the temporal creation from eternity, and hence is always ready for whatever happens. For us, the future does not exist at all and God’s act of creation is still ongoing. In our prayers we are relating to the eternal God who is not determined by what we call the future. He can answer our prayers without altering his plan. He knows from eternity what we need and what we should want. Who would want God to give them a lesser good just because they used the wrong words to express their anguish? Every prayer should be accompanied by a sincere “Not my will but yours be done!” You will always receive your request, and it will always be the best answer:

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

6) God realizes his aims perfectly. God cannot fail, even in part. We cannot know the details of God’s eternal plan for creation. But how could God fail to accomplish something God intends to do? Doesn’t God know what he can and cannot do? How could God’s plan fail unless God mistakenly thought he could do something but discovered that he was unable? Take comfort. Though we fail often God will not fail:

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

The Message of Divine Providence for an Age of Anxiety

Anxiety is the state of every soul who thinks the future rests in our hands and that the lasting meaning of our lives will be determined by the worth of our accomplishments. Hence paradoxically, despair is the beginning of hope. And disillusionment is the first step to overcoming anxiety. If we are to experience what Paul calls the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5) and the “peace that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), we must despair of every false hope and every illusory good. Not surprisingly, then, we find in the scriptures some statements that seem intent on driving us to despair. They evoke a kind of therapeutic despair. Working like a strong emetic, they provoke nausea to help us expel the poison of misplaced hope:

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”     says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!     Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors     at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go,     but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets,     and hurries back to where it rises (Ecclesiastes 1:2-5)

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied….32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,

“Let us eat and drink,     for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:17-32).

To say that Arthur Schopenhauer had a nose for sniffing out false hopes would be an understatement! But he is no more pessimistic than the Preacher of Ecclesiastes when he makes the diagnosis below. He is simply describing what everyone sees if you clear your mind of optimistic theories:

“The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the contingency and relativity of all things; in continual becoming without being; in continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists. Time and that perishability of all things existing in time that time itself brings about is simply the form under which the will to live…reveals to itself the vanity of its striving. Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value.

That which has been no longer is; it as little exists as does that which has never been. But everything that is in the next moment has been. Thus the most insignificant present has over the most significant past the advantage of actuality, which means that the former bears to the latter the relation of something to nothing” (from Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Vanity of Existence”).

When you are young the future stretches before you and disappears over the horizon. It does not present itself as a finite series of evanescent moments but as a timeless, motionless whole. And though we know each present moment passes into oblivion before we can taste it, we experience a sense of continuity and stability in our memory of the past and anticipation of the future. This sense of time’s wholeness is reinforced by the appearance that objects around us possess stability, since they endure from one evanescent moment to the next. Youth views the immediate future as a time of becoming and building and the more distant future as a time of being and enjoying the enduring fruits of our labors. But as you get older, you see supposedly “enduring” objects age and disintegrate. Your accomplishments seem less significant in hindsight. The future no longer stretches out infinitely; the horizon continues to recede but the end of your time line appears short of the horizon. The excitement of becoming and the illusion of stable being are replaced by prospect of disintegration and nonbeing. The fragility of the moment spreads itself over all moments making it apparent that the wholeness and motionlessness of time is illusory. Nothing endures. Everything dies. All is forgotten.

I know the temptation of false hopes and the paralyzing anxiety caused by attempting the make my life significant by my labor. Have I done enough? Am I really making a lasting difference in the lives of my students? Will anyone read my books or “like” my blog posts? Will my labor be in vain? Will anyone remember or care? Will it last? Sometimes, when I get in this mood of despair I remember what I have always known and wonder how I could have forgotten: the answers to these questions are completely irrelevant because they are not the right questions to be asking. The right question is this: will my faithful creator take my work and with it accomplish his will and produce something that lasts, not for a day or a hundred or a thousand years, but for eternity? Will my God remember me? The answer I hear resounding in my ears is a clear yes! When I despair completely of my strength and put my hope in God, in God alone, my joy returns. I regain energy for my work. I do not have to see it. I know it, I feel it: My work will not be in vain!

At the end of his great chapter on the resurrection, Paul expresses the hope beyond the despair of human possibilities:

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

The Lord really does built the house and raise the dead!