reason, paradox, and unbelieving believers

(had a few formatting issues with misplaced text when first posted, these should be fixed now… I hope)

I am going to go out on a bit of limb today, and hopefully this will start some conversation and you the reader can help me out.  I believe there is some difference between believing the bible and believing the Word it contains.  I know I am being a little sloppy with rhetoric here, and I certainly would agree that the ‘Bible contains, and even IS the Word of God’ and that the whole scripture is meant to reveal God to us and point ultimately to the incarnate Christ who lived, died, and rose again FOR US.  I do not question its inerrancy, sufficiency, or infallibility.   Nonetheless it seems to me that there needs to be some distinction between believing the bible, and actually believing the word as it pertains to us.

Let me set this up with a simple example:  In Matthew 5:14 we read Jesus saying to his disciples; “You are the light of the world…”  What I hope to establish here is that to say we believe this verse really does not mean anything.  The question is “HOW do we believe this?”  Here are a couple of ways.

  1. Historical:  Yes I believe that Jesus was a real person who really said these words to a group of disciples who were gathered around Him on a hillside”
  2. The Ahistorical:  Yes I believe that those words contain great truth, whether Jesus actually said them or not really doesn’t matter to me.

Now of course as conservative bible believers we prefer the first answer over and against the second, but both answers claim belief in the bible.  A closer look reveals that the issue is not quite as simple as answer 1 and 2.  Take answer #1.  “Yes I believe that Jesus really said that to his disciples.”  This can still be broken down into the following forms of belief:

1a. Yes I believe this to be historical, but I do not believe that Jesus really meant that His disciples were actually the light of the world, because that does not fit my theological framework where only Christ himself is the light of the world.

1b. Yes I believe this to be historical, and I actually believe that the disciples gathered there were indeed the light of the world.

1c. Yes I believe this to be the historical, and believe that as Christ was saying this Sermon it was not only true to the disciples gathered but to all disciples of His for all time, including me!  Because of these words I believe that I, along with other believers, am the light of the world.

Of course I would hold to position 1c, but positions 1a-1c exist on a variety of issues well beyond Matthew 5:14.  In fact it is very common for people to revert to a 1a type position on any text that they cannot fit within their theological framework.  There are times when ‘reason’ forces believers to refute the plain reading of a text in order to fit their system.  Take a verse like 1 Peter 3:21 for instance that states “Baptism now saves you…”  Do you believe that text?  Now I understand that we must argue from context, and we must follow the flow of Peter’s argument, but it is a good text to look at.  Do you hold 1a, 1b, or 1c belief in that text?  Or what of the texts regarding the Lord’s Supper “This is my body…” tell me are you 1a, 1b, or 1c?
Now I don’t pretend to have answers here, I don’t, but most certainly we must admit that there is a tendency amongst even the most conservative of believers to believe in different ways about different scriptures.  The Calvinist always makes texts regarding election a 1c type of text, yet the passages that appear to proclaim an unlimited atonement get the 1a treatment.  Of course on the flip side the Arminians do the exact opposite, giving election the 1a, and the unlimited atonement the 1c.  The reason we have these issues is because in the “Age of Reason” we have no tolerance for paradox.  We cannot allow ourselves to believe in both an unlimited atonement and still a doctrine of monergistic predestination.  I would contend with you that the only reason we do not believe in both is because we have too high of a view of our own reasoning.  (This is a place where I have to admit confessional Lutheranism as I know it has everyone else beat, they simply let it be a paradox an adamantly refuse to ‘deconfuse’ it.)

Now back to the original question regarding Jesus saying “You are the light of the world…”  Answer #1 was the historical ‘yes’ answer which we then broke down into 1a,b, and c.  However, we must be careful to not be so quick to write off answer #2 as being altogether faulty.  In fact there is a version of #2 that is far more desirable than 1a or b.

The ahistorical answer can be broken down like this:

2a.  I believe those words contain great truth, but I don’t know if Jesus ever said them, or even if Jesus is real, or the actual son of God.  I do however believe the words contain truth.

2b.  I believe those words contain great truth, but it is more allegorical, Jesus was a great teacher on par with other great teachers but to call his words absolute is wrong.

2c.   Yes I believe those words contain great truth, and are absolutely true for all disciples at all times, and are the very word of God, I just simply do not believe that Matthew recorded the exact discourse but instead communicated to his Jewish audience the force of what Christ typically taught.

Of course there are other variations of both answer 1 and 2, but you can begin to see the complexity here.  There are a lot of people out their fighting for the historical position, a lot of people who put their whole life into defending answer #1 in its general sense and fighting against answer #2 in its general sense.   There is a problem though.  Answer 1a, and 1b are still faulty, and though you defend the veracity of the scripture you may not actually be upholding the word of God at all.  In fact I would go so far as to say the 2c approach (though I may find it flawed) is far superior to the 1a and 1b approach.

Chew on that for a while.  It is one thing to simply believe the history, it is an entirely different thing to believe the truth contained in that history.  It is quite possible to believe the truth contained in the actual history without believing the history, and there is the possibility of believing the history while not believing the truth it contains.  Consider the case of evolution and creation, believing creation without dwelling on the implications of original sin and the promised Gospel contained in Gen 3:15 is probably worse than not believing literal creation but instead viewing it as a communication of the real truth of original sin and the original intent to bring forth the Gospel.  Listen I am a hard literalist on creation, but honestly I have more in common with a 2c belief of creation than I do with a 1a, or 1b belief of it.  I have met countless people who have little knowledge of the Gospel, if any, but will scream from the topic of their lungs if their child is exposed to evolution.  Getting the history right is incredibly important, and I will not budge on literal creation, but there is much more to it than getting the history right.  Of course creation is one example, open to any text of scripture and the same thought processes exist.

To all who made it this far, I apologize for the numbers and letters, and I hope this made sense, I really struggled to make this cogent, and I am not quite sure I succeeded.

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15 thoughts on “reason, paradox, and unbelieving believers

  1. If Sin is our nature…what will change upon our death?
    Please understand that my dialogue with you has nothing to do with a desire of mine to be right and you be wrong for ultimately I am responsible for my own salvation….
    You stated that..”Over time we begin to either make them into more than they were, or we gradually write them off altogether” with regards to experiences…. Is it quite possible that Paul did the same thing with regards to Jesus? Cause quite frankly it was either martyr Jesus or go back to fishing…(Lol..disregard this as nothing more than just me being silly). But my counterpoint to your point is a valid one…How are we to be certain that the meaning of these events as described mean what religious doctrine teaches. Can an historical event be expressed and interpreted to have different meanings?

    • With Paul it was not martyr Jesus or just go back fishing… you could say that with Peter I suppose, but you have quite the opposite situation on your hands with Paul. (So I will take your advice and disregard that comment as being silly.)

      You are NOT ultimately responsible for your salvation, Christ is responsible for it, and has taken responsibility for it in the actual historical events of his life, death, and resurrection.

      Now your counterpoint is fair, how can we assert that the doctrine laid forth by the Apostle Paul that we call penal substitution is a true rendering of the meaning of the crucifixion? I would say first because Christ alluded to it, and the entire Old Testament pointed to a penal substitution. Moreover the letter to the Hebrews codifies it beautifully. It’s everywhere in scripture.

      The only refute I see to it is the idea of a progressive revelation of God as you have seemed to adopt as well as many others like Brian McLaren. However Jesus, in His Gospels does not seem to take that approach at all, especially as he speaks of fulfillment of the law, and refusal to nullify it.

      I am still greatly enjoying our conversation, I hope you are as well. If it gets frustrating to you, or to me, we can let it lay low and pick it up later, but I for one am enjoying this quite a bit.

  2. Jay you ask……Is it safe for me to assume that you do not think the scriptures intend to lay out a doctrine of original sin? Or being as we have differing views on creation, can I assume that you do not believe in a natural depravity of a human from their birth?

    My response is this…..I believe Sin exist within the context of what the word means…I see no mercy or justification in some of the end results of what is labeled a result of Sin. That is not merciful….

    • I agree with you. I see no mercy and justification in some of the penalties of sin, but I acknowledge that I cannot see the mercy and justification because I too am mired in sin. Like a fish not knowing its wet, we swim in sin unaware of what it would be like to not be immersed in it.

      I trust God is merciful beyond measure even when I cannot see his mercy, and I am ok with that, I don’t really feel the need to rationalize it.

  3. Jay you said……..The reason for starvation and death is sin, and it is a just penalty to this world (including you and I) who continually forsake God and wreak havoc on this earth in our relationships, ethics, etc… in fact from our very beginning it seems that we have done nothing but sin. My 1.5 year old daughter is already a mighty sinner (the cutest one on the face of the earth, and the apple of my eye, but no less she is a mighty sinner.) It is the very nature of depraved humanity to be in sin continually. So I ask you, if we are all as sinful as the scripture says we are (sin is the easiest doctrine to prove) is it better to have a starving child live and continue to sin against themselves, God, and this world, or is it more merciful both to them and the world that this child should die?

    I will say under no circumstance shall a child starve and it is borderline insane to believe otherwise. Your approach seems to be one of that due to the sin of others an innocent child starves. You claim that your daughter of 1.5 years is full of sin and then state which is better…a child die or live in sin? So I ask you, do you believe that it is better for your daughter to die? Why then do you believe that the God that created you would feel different than you with regards to this? If the Bible is meant to be interpreted in this way why dont you feel that your child would be better of dead, or for that matter, never born? Unless of course you believe that because you are not righteous enough to see that it is better for her to die that you will fight and do everything in your power for her to live.

    Do you believe that God is a merciful, just God and that God loves us so much that God sent Jesus, His Son, to be tortured and murdered to pay for the sins of all of us past, present and future? Do you believe that the reason not a single parent on the face of the Earth would not place their child under the same fate is because we are not righteous enough? Jesus was tortured and murdered because he broke man’s laws. He came to teach the Truth and it is the very Truth that got him killed. He is the Truth, the Way and the Light not because he was tortured, murdered and sacrificed on some divine plan by God but because of what he taught. The killing of him came at the hands of man….of which the God who sent him was incapable of stopping just as the same God cannot stop the killing of another by another today. Remember the Cross…if Jesus paid for our sins…why to this day is the result of sin…death? Especially a slow, painful death such as starving…Jesus is my personal Savior….you are probably wondering how all of what I am saying fits with the statement that Jesus is my personal Savior…if so, let me say this….Bring God down from out of the sky….. Look forward to your reply……

    • Lance I will try to be shorter in my reply here, not to be curt, but simply to condense things a bit.

      A. Children are not innocent. The desire for sin is inherent from day one.
      B. We are not innocent.
      C. When we look at children we see a relative innocence because they have not had the time to sin as we have, so if we compare them to ourselves we see it as utterly incomprehensible that a child would starve while we are well fed.
      D. I do not see God causing starvation as an individual punishment against a poor child. Let me be clear there. It is not that God is angry with this child so he is going to force them into suffering. At the same time he does see guilt and is not compelled by the innocence of the child to relieve their suffering. If He will relieve their suffering it is because of his own character, not that of the child.

      Now let me leave the starving child for now. Because you bring up a far more important divergence that goes well beyond original sin.

      Take the passages in Isaiah regarding the suffering servant, specifically (but not only) Isaiah 53. This is a clear picture of the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’. It is clear by the sheer quantity of NT quotation of Isaiah 53 that it was intended to speak of the Christ. Moreover Paul clearly lays forth penal substitution, and I don’t imagine I have to quote the countless texts that affirm this, but I will if you so desire. We could go further, the entire Levitical system points to a penal substitution, from the scapegoat to pigeons with their heads wrung off. But Penal substitution is not limited to Paul, or the OT, but is taught by the Christ himself throughout the gospels.

      Why was Christ crucified? For violating man’s laws? He was not crucified for violation of ‘man’s laws’ he was crucified for blasphemy, that is, for proclaiming he was the Son of God. He was indeed crucified for his teachings, but not his teachings on ethics, but his teaching about who he was!

      What of death? Where oh death is your victory, where o death is your sting. The only thing that dies is our flesh, which still retains the sinful nature it had from birth, yet the real part of us has been made perfect by the work of Christ on the cross and will not experience death.

      Finally, a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is a bit of a fabrication of our highly individualized post enlightenment mindset. I don’t put much, if any emphasis on a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus. We have a corporate relationship with the church which has been created by Christ and that relationship centers around ordinary means given by Christ, mainly word and sacrament. Certainly the Spirit makes this who thing more than just corporate and indeed makes it personal, but even the Spirit works corporately because their is but one Spirit though their are many believers.

      You want me to bring God down…
      Romans 10:5-8 5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “ ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

  4. There is no comparison in Adolf Hitler being compared to an innocent child whom has just been born into the world.
    You have been taught religious doctrine that existed before you. Most of it as it is taught can be considered creative speculation.. can it not? I used to feel and believe the same way as you. Then one day 12 years ago, on my knees in the Church my father attends, something happened. I ask for guidance and as the Minister began praying for this, for me, I began hearing faint whispers that sounded like there were literally 100’s of people gathered around me..startled I looked up to see if there were others around me and the only people up there were me, my father and his friend who was knelt down beside me…it was as if I could hear the prayers of everyone in the congregation, praying for me. The love I felt in that moment was overwhelming..I cried, uncontrollably for hours. Another amazing thing happened almost instantly..an understanding of the scriptures that I thought I knew so well, as were taught using the same religious doctrine, began being revealed to me…I had no idea at the time that these revelations would lead me to this point a decade later but here I am. Part of me wishes that I would have never asked for this guidance.. So when you refer to this as creative speculation, how can you be sure of this? If I were to tell you that I am just expressing to you the mind of God, how can you be so sure to just dismiss me and say I AM wrong? Understand.. I totally understand your position, I absolutely can relate to it. I truly appreciate the manner in which you are dealing with me and truly can see the beauty in the essence of your being. I thank you for this.

    • Lance, I did presume that the Hitler foil would strike a nerve, and used it precisely to do just that, not in a mean spirit at all (please understand that), but I assumed that it would bring to the surface our most significant point of divergence from each other. In other words, I thought it appropriate to get that on the table.

      Children are only innocent in the sense that they have not had the same number of years to pile up the same quantity of sin as we have. Nonetheless the nature of that child, the natural inclination of that child is to sin, and to sin continually. My children do not sin because they have followed my or my wife’s example, they sin because it is natural for them to do. I cannot even begin to imagine what my daughter would do to me during one of her temper tantrums if she had the strength of a 25 year old man. I imagine if she wanted some trinket I held she would knock me out and leave me for dead on the floor while she ran off happily with the object she desired, not because she is a vile monster, but because she is human.

      Where we do agree is that we would both say that my son and daughter, as well as the rest of humanity are created in the image of God and are of infinite worth. Nonetheless their (our… my) nature is utterly corrupt. We would also probably agree that the unconditional love of God is beyond measure and is indeed infinite, a thought that should bring us to our knees continually in worship.

      Herein lies the rub. God’s unconditional love is not some ethereal concept of God. It is a love that has been manifested the actual historical event of the crucifixion of Himself. So while I share with you a number of experiences where I have sensed and been floored by the love of the community of Christ, it is still in the historical events of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ that the love of God has ultimately been displayed. In the cross God has not chosen to look past my sin, nor to ignore my guilt, quite the opposite, my guilt has been placarded before the entire world in Christ on a hill outside of Jerusalem. Of course the story, as we know, does not end there because on the third day all that guilt and shame that was displayed before the entire world was shown to not have the final word.

      One of the problems with our moments of spiritual highs or realizations, is that over time our memories of those moments change. We try to go back to them, but we cannot, we try to fit them into our understanding and we can’t. Over time we begin to either make them into more than they were, or we gradually write them off altogether. I used to lead a youth ministry and I can remember countless times when there were rooms of weeping kids sharing their hearts, and it was not difficult, with the right moves, to create those moments. I certainly do not say this to deny your experience (God forbid!), but I do say this as a reminder that our experiences are not our grounds of assurance or confidence. Again I appeal back to the historical events of Christ’s life as the grounds of assurance, actual events that took place for you, me, and the rest of this world.

      As far as dismissing you and saying you are wrong… I may have said you are wrong, and I still believe you are wrong, but by no means have I, or will I dismiss you! I suppose if this goes on and on and neither of us get anywhere with each other we would eventually be wise to knock the dust off of our keyboards and move on, but we are a hundred million miles from that point. 🙂

      Is it safe for me to assume that you do not think the scriptures intend to lay out a doctrine of original sin? Or being as we have differing views on creation, can I assume that you do not believe in a natural depravity of a human from their birth?

  5. Jay you said…Short answer: No, I do not deem it plausible from scripture, or from the words of Christ regarding the God who created them male and female, the same God who happens to be the one they hear in the Garden.

    I agree with you here…the God that I am “creatively speculating”(smile) on fits within your very words. Its not about believing in God, of which I DO, rather its about believing if the God of the Bible is a spirit being that is floating around in the sky concerned and involved in our daily lives or in a God that was, is and always will be here on Earth with his creation… moving it all along through speaking new ways of thought into existence and changing, or shall I say, awakening the next stage of growth in the ever evolving collective consciousness. A God that has the same limitations as you and I.
    Think on this…If we are created by God then we would have within us what God would be…if coming upon a starving child would you not do everything in your power to save this child or would you stand there and watch it die? Why do you accept that an all powerful God would not intervene? If God is anything other then yourself he would then be inferior to you.
    God said, My Spirit will not be with man forever for he is mortal and he will only live 120 years… Now is this not saying that we leave God when we die and not go to god like we have been taught? One more thing to further stretch this creative speculation… The man of the Bible is the white man. Do you find it the least bit fascinating that 6000 years after the creation of Adam and Eve we are beginning to see the end of the white race on the Earth. Within 100-200 years the weakest most recessive genes which happen to be blonde hair blue eyes will not exist. There will be nobody that will have the combination of blonde hair and blue eyes. Isn’t it ironic that God would have created the white race on the earth with a Sun that white people need sun block to be protected from its harmful rays? Does this seem natural to you? The white race was made…not created. Born through the womb of a black woman….now that my friend is creative speculation…is it not?

    • Lance, there is a lot of creative speculation in your post, and again I certainly enjoy your creativity. Your comment above reminds me of a book I read recently by Brian McLaren entitled “A New Kind of Christianity”, I thought of his book about the same as I thought of your comment, very interesting, well thought out, but wrong. (Please don’t hear me as being snide, but you at least deserve my honesty.)

      Let’s say (using the typical foil) Adolf Hitler is starving to death and needs a little more food to be well again in order that he can continue his rampage against the Jews, do you give him food? Yes or no? It is a difficult question. The reason for starvation and death is sin, and it is a just penalty to this world (including you and I) who continually forsake God and wreak havoc on this earth in our relationships, ethics, etc… in fact from our very beginning it seems that we have done nothing but sin. My 1.5 year old daughter is already a mighty sinner (the cutest one on the face of the earth, and the apple of my eye, but no less she is a mighty sinner.) It is the very nature of depraved humanity to be in sin continually. So I ask you, if we are all as sinful as the scripture says we are (sin is the easiest doctrine to prove) is it better to have a starving child live and continue to sin against themselves, God, and this world, or is it more merciful both to them and the world that this child should die?

      OK, that paragraph above sounds utterly horrific! I know it does, I know it sounds utterly uncompassionate and even evil. With that said, I personally am going to feed the child, because I am in no place to exercise judgment over that child, because like that child I was born in sin and have been sinful since that point. Moreover I am called as a representative of a merciful God to enact mercy out of gratitude for the mercy that has been shown to me. Nonetheless this does not place me above God in my character, in fact it is only because of God that I might show mercy. Yet the truth is that God being all powerful still lets people starve to death, even though I would not. Am I therefore more righteous than God? NO! The very fact that I am not righteous impels me to come to the aid of another unrighteous creature, yet God is not so impelled because God sees the monstrosity of sin in each of us, and has set death as the penalty for that sin (be it starvation or old age or anything between.) God’s holiness is such that he will not look upon sin, nor is he bound to. We tend to humanize him, but the scripture goes out of its way to keep us from doing just that. This is why the cross is so fascinating and wonderful, because there was nothing in us that impelled God to be merciful to us, yet he chose to anyway.

      Now as far a God being present on the earth now? He is, any and everywhere word and sacrament given and the Church “his body” is active. I could rattle a big list of scripture off here.

      Sorry if I ran circles here, and I am sure that we just opened a whole new can of worms, but that is ok. I also know there are somethings from your post that I didn’t address, maybe we will touch on them later.

  6. Jay, you are following me correctly. Let me add this. I am not a geneticist either but I know enough to state that there are dominant genes and recessive genes. I agree the notion of race based upon color is a faulty one a well and am only using it in this sense to designate the existence of dominant and recessive genes among the races.
    You mentioned about taking things literally…do you deem it plausible that the God speaking to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is/was a Black Man whom walked(hearing of footsteps), and talked face to face with Adam and Eve?…..

    • Short answer: No, I do not deem it plausible from scripture, or from the words of Christ regarding the God who created them male and female, the same God who happens to be the one they hear in the Garden.

      On the flip side I will say that what you are bringing forth is a creative (in the very best sense of the word) speculation, and I would be a liar if I said it wasn’t interesting or even enjoyable to chase that line of reasoning.

      People gradually became white… agree? I don’t think it is the case of Bam! here are two white people who happen to be entirely disconnected from their parents growing on their own when a black man comes into the garden and says “where are you?”

      So that you don’t hear me wrong, I have no issue with the idea of God being black, white, yellow, or purple of that matter. I think he is none of those, He is the very light by which we see color, so to deem him one color or another is unnecessary. (I imagine you are not going there, but I simply want to make clear that I don’t dismiss your idea because of some racist tendency.)

  7. Interesting read. With regard to creation as recorded in the Bible one can determine based on the genealogy of Adam and Eve that this event had taken place a little over 6000 years ago. Knowing that all the races come from what we call the Black Race, with the White Race being last, what do we make of the fact that the archaeological record for the White Race does not go back before the time recorded in the creation record found in Genesis?

    • Lance, I will confess that I am not certain about what you are asking here. I could be entirely wrong, but I believe you are making an assertion that the 6000+ year history of the literal creation account happens to coincide exactly with ‘white’ history. Of course that connection makes it convenient to make a logical assertion that the bible is the white man’s history book. Am I tracking you correctly?

      If I am hearing you correctly I will, at the very least, concede that this is an interesting argument against the creation narrative that I have never heard, and one that is worth taking the time to look into.

      As far as the genetics are concerned (listen I am not a geneticist, nor do I pretend to be) my sense would be that our original parents would indeed be what today we would consider black, but you and I both know that is a very relative label. When a couple marries where one parent is ‘black’ and the other is ‘white’, what are their children? I guess it depends on what genes transfer (and where on the color spectrum you draw the black/white line). I personally think the notion of race defined by color itself is a faulty one. If the Genesis account is to be believed, our original parents must have been somewhere between totally black and totally white (as we all are.) From them black and white could both emerge over time via (gasp) natural selection.

      Again, I don’t pretend to be an expert, nor do I believe I could make forceful enough arguments to convince an ardent skeptic of literal young earth creationism.

      I will say that my belief in a literal creation account is not tied to geology or archaeology but instead is tied to the resurrection itself, which I do believe is verifiable history. In essence my argument would be if Jesus indeed has resurrected then his own claims to divinity are verified, and if Christ is verified as deity then his teachings are indeed divinely trustworthy. Christ’s teachings seem (at least to me) to indicate that he had a literal belief in Genesis 1-11.

      In other words all my eggs are in the resurrection basket. Could I be wrong? YES! I could be wrong if I am misreading Christ as taking the account as literal when he really was not. However, it seems to me that he indeed is speaking literally. For me the battle does not lie in the science (resurrection is clearly not within the norms of science). The battle lies in faithful interpretation of the teachings of Christ regarding creation, and in the validity of the resurrection.

      I appreciate you weighing in on this, please correct me if I read to much into your comment.

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