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Month: March 2016

Richard Dawkins and “The God Delusion”: Natural Selection, Religion, and Meme Theory (Part 14)

Richard Dawkins and “The God Delusion”: Natural Selection, Religion, and Meme Theory (Part 14)

Internet MemesWhen I first read The God Delusion back in 2011, that was the first time I had ever come across “Meme Theory.” Now, you have probably heard the term “internet meme”: those quirky little snippets on the internet that get hopelessly repeated with minor variations in the message. Well, if you’ve ever wondered, “What the heck does ‘meme’ mean?” you’re in luck. It was a term made up by Richard Dawkins in an attempt to explain human though by purely naturalistic means. Now genes supply the information and building blocks of everything in the natural world.

Dawkins, being an atheist and philosophical natural who is insistent that everything in the universe can be explained by the means of natural selection and evolution, found himself faced with a challenge. If that’s the case, how can that account for human thought and ideas? Let’s face it, genetics and DNA might hold the keys to what eye color you have, but they don’t hold the keys to the thoughts you think and the beliefs you have. You’re not going to find in the genome any gene that says, “Sally is going to be a Los Angeles Lakers fan.” Simply put, there are some things in the world not explained by genes and DNA. Most people are fine with this.

…Dawkins isn’t, though. He is such an ardent crusader for philosophical naturalism, he is determined to explain everything (and I mean everything) by means of evolution and natural selection. This is where his “Meme Theory” comes in.

Is Religion a Product of Evolution?
In chapter 5 of The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to give a “scientific” explanation regarding the roots of religion. Essentially, he argues that there must be a part of the brain—the ‘god center’—that has developed over time via natural selection. Therefore, this “religious tendency” must have served an evolutionary purpose at one time. Dawkins then wonders, “Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god centre survive to have more grandchildren than rivals who didn’t?” (197).

Let’s stop there for a moment. I don’t think it is too much to say that perhaps Dawkins is assuming a few too many things here: (A) Is there a “religious part of the brain? (B) Is religion really a genetic phenomenon? (C) Were there primal ancestors who had no “religious gene”? (D) Is any of what Dawkins is putting forth even remotely scientific in any way? (Spoiler alert—the answer is “No”). In any case, Dawkins is determined to make his argument.

In order to argue that religious tendencies are simply a by-product of natural selection and genetics, Dawkins tries to compare religious people to moths, whose propensity to “fly to the light,” while no doubt dangerous when it comes to open flames and bug-zappers, still nevertheless serves a purpose in the propagation of the species. Dawkins writes, “On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself as religious behavior. We shall understand religious behavior only after we have renamed it” (202).

Added to this idea is Dawkins’ re-hashing of an old Freudian argument regarding children, but with a twist. Dawkins argues that children’s brains have “a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility” (205).

The Santa Claus Argument, and the Virus of Religion
So basically, Dawkins argues that religious ideas really stem a combination of (A) the gullibility of children’s brains and (B) the indoctrination of parents and “tribal leaders” in order to ensure the survival of their family or tribe. It is, what I like to call, the Santa Claus argument: “Be a good boy or Santa won’t bring you gifts.” Convince the dopey child of Santa, and you’ll have him eating his peas, picking up his room, and obeying his parents—after all, it’s good for him. That is why churches start so early with their Sunday Schools—mold and indoctrinate those vulnerable children brains, and you have them hooked for life!

So after putting forth this argument (that is based on his own unscientific assumptions), Dawkins concludes that this is why religion is so sinister. He actually states: “Maybe some children need to be protected from indoctrination by their own parents” (206). And later, “Once infected, the child will grow up and infect the next generation with the same nonsense, whatever it happens to be” (219).

So, according to Dawkins the “thing” that gives rise to religious tendencies is a genetic product of natural selection, but the religious ideas themselves are the equivalent of an infection, a virus, if you will. Therefore, Dawkins “logically” concludes that religious leaders and parents who teach religion to their children are abusing their children. According to Dawkins, teaching religious ideas to children is the equivalent of infecting them with AIDS.

Now, that is quite a serious charge. But I have to ask one basic question: is comparing moths’ attraction to light to religious ideas a valid, scientific comparison? Is there any logical, rational, scientific connection between the two, or is Dawkins just making this stuff up? Is there any kind of scientific, testable hypothesis that can support Dawkins’ claim? The answer is obvious: No there isn’t. Inflammatory and shocking as Dawkins’ comparison of religion with AIDS might be, the argument upon which he bases that assessment is complete and utter unscientific, nonsense.

Now, About Meme Theory…Let the Colonization Begin
Let’s now focus on Dawkins’ Meme Theory itself. Remember, Dawkins believes that everything must be able to be explained in evolutionary terms—not just biological organisms, but everything: culture, ideas, art, music, literature…everything. After all, Dawkins surmises that if human beings are just the products of blind evolutionary forces, than anything that humans produce, feel, or think are equally the products of blind evolutionary forces. Therefore, Dawkins’ meme theory is his attempt to “scientifically” explain human culture in evolutionary terms. Here’s what it looks like.

According to Dawkins, everything in culture, any bit of information that gets passed on from person to person, from songs and art to philosophical and theological ideas are “memes,” and “memes” are essentially cultural genes—and they compete for survival. Therefore, “Let it Be” by the Beatles is a “meme”—and in order to survive, it has to get people to listen to it and pass it along to other people. It has to compete with other “music memes” like “Baby, Baby” by Justin Beiber and “Claire de Lune” by Claude Debussy. By the same token, Christianity is a “religious meme”—and in order to survive, it has to get people to believe it and then pass its teachings to others. That means it has to compete with other theological/philosophical systems like Buddhism, Islam, Epicureanism, atheism, and countless others.

The point of all this is simple. Meme Theory states that you don’t choose to like “Let it Be” as opposed to “Baby, Baby;” and you don’t choose to become a Christian as opposed to a Buddhist. No…The “Let it Be” meme chooses you, and the Christian meme chooses you, to colonize your brain and replicate within your brain.

That’s right. You might think that you have chosen to become a Republican, Christian, NRA member who likes classic rock, opera, and “The Muppet Show,” but in reality (according to Dawkins’ Meme Theory) the Republican meme, Christian meme, NRA meme, classic rock meme, opera meme, and Muppet Show meme have all simply taken up residency within the gray matter within your skull, and you are nothing more than a host, a carrier, and transmitter of these memes as they struggle to survive.

What this means is that if Meme Theory is true, then that means that you don’t really exist—there is no free will, there is no individuality, there is no real personhood. What you think is “you” is really just a bunch of matter being controlled and colonized by essentially parasitic memes. In fact, if Meme Theory is true, not only did I not choose to become a Christian, but Richard Dawkins did not choose to become an atheist. Furthermore, if Meme Theory is true, then there is no real way to determine whether or not Christianity or atheism is, in fact, true. For that matter, there simply is no way of knowing if anything is true or false—for there is no “you” or “I” conscious self to observe the world, to rationally analyze it, and to discover truth about it in the first place. Simply put, if Meme Theory is true, then there is no way of determining if anything is real, meaningful, or true. The very concept of “truth” is rendered meaningless. And if that’s the case, then how can “we” (who don’t really exist) ever know that Meme Theory is “true”? (“What is truth?” says Pilate…or plates…or Pilates…who knows what’s what?)

Interet Memes 2That’s Meme Theory in a nutshell. In his attempt to make up a fictitious theory as a means to discredit religion, Dawkins has put forth the suggestion, if taken to its logical conclusion, completely obliterates human dignity, and any sense of purpose, meaning, or truth. It took all of one paragraph to show its absurdity, and we haven’t even gotten to how Dawkins attempts to use his unscientific theory of his fictitious memes to religious idea. That will have to wait until next time.

Richard Dawkins and “The God Delusion”–Natural Selection and Psychosis (Part 13)

Richard Dawkins and “The God Delusion”–Natural Selection and Psychosis (Part 13)

Natural Selection, YEC, GG, and ID, and Another Dawkins-Ham Connection
God-delusionRichard Dawkins describes natural selection as a gradual process of adaptations in life, and distinguishes it from both “design” and “chance.” As he states, “natural selection is a cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbably, but not prohibitively so” (147). To put it another way: “Evolution…goes around the back of the mountain and creeps up the gentle slope to the summit: easy! The principle of climbing the gentle slope as opposed to leaping up the precipice is so simple one is tempted to marvel that it took so long for a Darwin to arrive on the scene to discover it” (147).

On this point, I, as well as a growing number of Christian biblical scholars and scientists alike, agree. So when Dawkins says, “Real life seeks the gentle slopes at the back of Mount Improbable, while creationists are blind to all but the daunting precipice at the front” (148), I have to say, “Well, you’re right…about young earth creationists. Not only do they practice bad science, they practice bad biblical exegesis and theology.

The same goes for Dawkins’ critique on the “God of the Gaps” theory that says, “Whatever science can’t explain…that’s the part God did!” The obvious problem with this idea is that, as science continues to discover more and more of the universe, the “God” of the “God of the Gaps theory” slowly gets explained out of existence.

And then there’s the “Intelligent Design” movement. I long have come to realize that I.D.’s basic argument (i.e. that there is so much complexity in the world, that it points to the existence of an intelligent designer) isn’t really a scientific argument. It is a metaphysical one. I, too, look at the wonders of creation and think that it points to the existence of God—I’m just not making a scientific argument or observation when I say that. And that’s okay.

In any case, the more I read about it, the more obvious it seems that the current I.D. movement is nothing more than creationism with the words “Intelligent Design” substituted for “God.” The Dover court case pretty much proved that beyond a reasonable doubt. If you want to learn more about it, let me suggest Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.

Now, although Dawkins is right to point out the clear scientific problems with YEC, GG, or ID, he is completely wrong to equate any of those with biblical Christianity. Yes, natural selection is the central paradigm in biology, but it is not in any way, shape, or form “proof” against the existence of God. Again, this takes me back to a Dawkins-Ham parallel: they are both playing on the same ball field, but they are playing the wrong game. To say that natural selection “disproves” God is about as logical as saying E=MC2 “disproves” God, or some Algebraic formula “disproves” God, or the fact that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen somehow “proves” God doesn’t exist. It is a nonsensical connection. Ken Ham does the exact same thing, only in the opposite direction, but the fact remains, both men are running up and down a football field, trying to sink three-pointers and hit homeruns.

The Origin of Life…and Psychosis?
When it comes to the origin of life, though, Dawkins does manage to state an obvious fact that should have prevented him from writing a book about how science can prove there is no God. He states, “The origin of life…lies outside the reach of that [Darwinian] crane, because natural selection cannot proceed without it” (168). In other words, Dawkins admits that Darwinian natural selection can only address the diversity of life that already exists. It cannot address origins or anything that lies “outside the reach” of the material world. He is, for all practical purposes, acknowledging the limits of biological science. This is a very reasonable and good thing.

…but then Dawkins continues, and states his belief that science, particularly natural selection, “disproves” the existence of God. For Dawkins, believing in the existence of God is just “…deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained” (171). I find such a comment rather humorous. After all, what Dawkins is doing is dismissing the idea of a God who is beyond the natural order on the grounds that His existence cannot be explained, presumably, by the methods of scientific naturalism. If God is beyond nature, then complaining that He can’t be explained naturally is rather absurd.

Amazingly still, Dawkins goes one step further. He states, “I see no alternative but to dismiss it [theism’s claim of God], while at the same time marveling at the number of people who can’t see the problem and seem genuinely satisfied by the ‘Divine Knob-Twiddler’ argument. Maybe the psychological reason for this amazing blindness has something to do with the fact that many people have not had their consciousness raised, as biologists have, by natural selection and its power to tame improbability” (172).

richarddawkinsPlease, read the above quote again. Not only does Dawkins mischaracterize all Christians (and theists) who believe in God as people who believe God is a “Divine Knob-Twiddler,” he also attributed belief in God to a psychological disorder and claimed that people who believe in God suffer from an “unraised consciousness.” And to top it off, he actually claimed  that natural selection has “raised the consciousness” of biologists. Where to begin?

Of course there are some religious people out there who cling to a very unscientific (and unbiblical) concept of God as a “Divine Knob-Twiddler,” but do all Christians hold that view? Of course not, and Dawkins knows that, but it’s clear he’s more interested in being a provocateur and propagandist than he is in actually presenting the truth.

As for his claim that belief in God is a psychological disorder, he’d better start building a whole lot of sanitariums, because over 90% of the world’s population is clearly insane. In fact, Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Michelangelo, Aquinas, and modern scientists Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, John Polkinghorne—we’d have to lock all of them up. The fact is, Dawkins’ claim is simply a rehashing of the old argument of Sigmund Freud, whose theories hardly anyone holds anymore. Yes, Freud opened the door to the field of psychoanalysis, but his writings on religion, despite his claims, are completely unscientific and completely out of his field of expertise. The same holds for Dawkins. He proves himself a parroting dwarf compared to Freud, and Freud was midget himself when it came to the topic of religion.

Finally, at the risk of sounding too sarcastic, I never knew that biologists are the favored sons of natural selection. Evidently, their consciousness is so raised that they are able to write books that argue that science, even though it cannot address anything beyond the natural order, can actually disprove God’s existence on the ground that it cannot be explained scientifically. I just can’t understand it. I must be suffering from psychosis.

Oh, That’s So 19th Century!
Dawkins ends his fourth chapter with a brief story of an encounter he had at Cambridge with a number of theologians. Dawkins displayed some rather thin skin when he took particular issue with these theologians when they told him that many of his arguments were “so 19th-century.” He writes,

 “…this particular piece of name-calling seemed a bit rich coming, as it did, from an individual who justified his own Christian belief by invoking what he called the historicity of the New Testament. It was precisely in the nineteenth century that theologians, especially in Germany, called into grave doubt that alleged historicity, using the evidence-based methods of history to do so.” (186)

“What, then, is the coded meaning of ‘You are so nineteenth-century’ in the context of an argument about religion? It is code for: ‘You are so crude and unsubtle, how could you be so insensitive and ill-mannered as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ or ‘Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?’” (187)

Well, I wouldn’t call it so much “name-calling” as I would simply call it pointing out that Dawkins’ arguments really do come from 19th century scholars, many of whose arguments have been long since discarded. Dawkins evidently doesn’t know this, though. That’s why he takes offense. He feels threatened, because he knows deep down, when it comes to the area of Theology and Biblical Studies, he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about.

Dawkins HamIn this respect, Richard Dawkins, once again, proves himself to be Ken Ham’s doppleganger. For just as Ken Ham routinely belittles and ridicules scientists who contradict his long-since outdated and simplistic scientific claims, Richard Dawkins routinely belittles and ridicules biblical scholars who contradict his long-since outdated and simplistic claims about the Bible. He’s right to call out fundamentalists who attempt to disprove advances in modern biology, archeology, and genetics by appealing to long-disproven scientific theories of a bygone era, but he is completely blind to the obvious fact that he is doing the exact same thing when it comes to biblical studies.

In my next post, I will discuss Dawkins’ “Meme Theory.” I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase, “internet meme.” Now, Dawkins is no Al Gore—he didn’t invent the internet. But he is the one who coined the term “meme.” You’ll be surprised to find out what he actually says memes are.

Richard Dawkins and “The God Delusion”: Natural Selection, I.D., and the Existence of God (Part 12)

Richard Dawkins and “The God Delusion”: Natural Selection, I.D., and the Existence of God (Part 12)

God-delusionNow that I have taken a good 3-4 weeks off from analyzing The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I think it is time to get back to it. I have already written 11 previous posts on the first few chapters of The God Delusion, so now I would like to pick things up with chapter 4, where Richard Dawkins tackles the question of the existence of God. Now, as the title of the chapter suggests, “Why there almost certainly is no God,” Dawkins tries to prove that there is, in fact, no God. He does this by addressing the “Design vs. Natural Selection” issue. Before I put in my two cents on this issue, though, let me, as clearly as possible, put forth the gist of Dawkins’ argument.

Dawkins begins his argument by referring to the “The Ultimate Boeing 747 Argument”: the argument that says no one would ever think that a Boeing 747 could ever just “evolve” through random chance. Dawkins’ response to this argument is as follows:

“This, in a nutshell, is the creationist’s favorite argument—an argument that could be made only by somebody who doesn’t understand the first thing about natural selection: somebody who thinks natural selection is a theory of chance, whereas—in the relevant sense of chance—it is the opposite.” (138)

Dawkins then proceeds to argue that “design” and “chance” are not the only alternatives when it comes to understanding life on earth. Natural selection, properly understood, seeks out and argues for “graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity” (139). This slow, gradual process explains the slow emergence of complex organisms from earlier simple organisms, “without any deliberate guidance” (141). In conclusion, Dawkins states, “Natural selection…shatters the illusion of design within the domain of biology, and teaches us to be suspicious of any kind of design hypothesis in physics and cosmology as well” (143).

William PaleyTo an extent, Dawkins is correct. In fact, the “godfather” of the theory of intelligent design was William Paley, the 18th century Englishman who first put forth the idea that since the entire universe was essentially a giant machine, that that meant there had to be an ultimate being who designed the machine. His problem was that while he thought he was defending the notion of the Christian God, in reality he was defending the Enlightenment’s notion of a deistic god. In any case, Dawkins is correct: what we know now about the universe, quite frankly, is that it is a whole lot more mysterious and baffling than the “giant watch” of the deistic god.

Where Dawkins goes wrong is that he assumes that if the universe isn’t a “giant watch,” then that somehow proves God doesn’t exist. All that proves is that the deistic god of the Enlightenment doesn’t exist. The fact is, there are countless of high respected scientists who are Christians, who don’t buy into young earth creationism or “intelligent design,” and who fully accept evolutionary theory. They say that evolution is the way in which God is constantly creating the world.

Needless to say, Dawkins simply doesn’t get that: “I am continually astonished by those theists who, far from having their consciousness raised in the way that I propose, seem to rejoice in natural selection as ‘God’s way of achieving his creation’” (144).

Francis Collins QuoteThat’s right, Dawkins cannot comprehend how a Christian like Francis Collins (the man who unlocked the genome) could possibly accept natural selection and evolution, and still retain a belief in God. What could possibly be wrong with a guy like Collins? Well, you just read it in Dawkins’ quote: People like Collins apparently do not possess a high enough level of consciousness! But why would Dawkins say this? Why can’t Dawkins even entertain the possibly that natural selection is God’s method to create?

The answer Dawkins gives is this: if there is no God, then natural selection is a “splendidly elegant” and “remarkably wondrous” fact; but if God exists, then natural selection is just a messy and unimpressive bungle. Such a God, according to Dawkins is “…a hypothetically lazy God who tries to get away with as little as possible in order to make a universe containing life.” Such a “lazy God is even lazier than the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: God at leisure, unoccupied, unemployed, superfluous, useless” (144).

First off, let me say that the more I read about natural selection from prominent scientists like Francis Collins and Ken Miller—both who are also solid Christians—the more I am convinced that the biological theory of natural selection is probably the best way to understand life on earth. At the same time, I am also more convinced that natural selection is not antithetical to Christianity. It is antithetical to “young earth creationism,” for sure—but as a Bible scholar I can confidently say that the way “young earth creationists” read passages like Genesis 1-2 is, quite frankly, an extremely unbiblical way to read the Bible.

But secondly, let’s look more closely at the complete absurdity in what Dawkins said two paragraphs above. IF it is atheistic natural selection, then it is majestic and grand, but if there is a God behind natural selection, then that “majestic and grand” mechanism that explains life on earth all of a sudden becomes cheap and unimpressive. It seems to me that a majestic and grand process is majestic and grand process no matter what.

But why would Dawkins say it’s cheap if there is a God behind it? He doesn’t directly answer this, but I think I can guess what he’d say: “If there is a God, then why couldn’t he just snap his fingers and do it perfectly all at once?” But what kind of reasoning is that? Ironically, Dawkins’ notion of God is the exact same as Ken Ham’s notion of God. Both assume that they only way God would create is by a veritable snap of the fingers.

Dawkins HamLet me suggest that such a view imposes a simplistic cartoonish caricature on God, without seriously taking into consideration the vast complexity and diversity of existence. Dawkins, like Ham, holds the idea that the only God possible is one who magically does everything all at once, like genie: “Abracadabra!” But of course, that kind of “god” is simply not the God put forth in either the Old or New Testaments. It is, in all actuality, the red-headed step child of Enlightenment Deism. So in contrast to what Dawkins says, I do not think a God who allows freedom and creativity throughout His creation via natural selection is “lazy” or “useless.” He is Lord and Creator, whose sovereignty over such complexity, creativity, and freedom in creation is truly boundless and awe-inspiring. It is the simplistic cartoon of a genie-god that is less impressive than even the emaciated deist god of the Enlightenment…which is, by the way, the god of Ken Ham.

Book Review: “The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns

Book Review: “The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns

SinofCertaintyEnns, Peter. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. New York: HarperOne, 2016 (211 pages + Notes)

Peter Enns’ new book, The Sin of Certainty, will make you reflect on your life and question what you believe. That’s a good thing.

When I was a college student, I discovered the writings of the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton. His books helped shape my understanding of the life of faith. In his Asian Journal, he wrote: “Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt, it is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. A man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith.” Merton’s writings had a profound impact on my spiritual formation. He reassured me that periods of doubt and uncertainty are inevitable, and that faith wasn’t simply intellectual assent to a list of proofs and arguments. It was trusting God and stepping out in the midst of an uncertain and chaotic world to journey down the road of faith. It was admitting your own frailties and doubts, and starting down that road anyway, because you had put your trust in God, and had faith that He would see you through.

Somewhere along the line, though, this historical understanding of faith has been lost within Evangelicalism, only to be replaced by a rigid insistence of certainty of supposed facts, and politically-motivated holy crusades against anyone who dares deviate from such Fundamentalist certainty. Chances are either you know someone who has been deeply hurt by one of these holy crusades, or you have been wounded yourself. Or perhaps you are simply a believer who is plagued by doubt and uncertainty, and is on the verge of walking away from the faith.

If so, Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty, is for you. It is essentially Enns’ testimony of his journey of faith through some major life crises that resulted in periods of spiritual uncertainty and doubt. Enns’ message is quite simple: uncertainty and doubt are not only inevitable, they are God’s instruments to challenge us to grow into a deeper faith and trust in Him.

Enns had been a tenured Old Testament professor at Westminster Theological Seminary who found himself in considerable hot water with a new administration after he had written the book, Inspiration and Incarnation back in 2005. The basic premise of that book was that Evangelicals have to learn to read the Old Testament within its proper ancient Near Eastern context, and when they do, they might find a number of their assumptions about the Bible challenged. It turned out that many Evangelicals didn’t appreciate having their assumptions challenged. Inspiration and Incarnation was viewed as a threat to their theological certainty. Enns soon found himself without the security of a job, and suffering from sort of spiritual vertigo, questioning what he really believed. If you have been considerably hurt by a Christian community, you will be able to relate.

Enns’ primary thesis is that the Christian faith is not a matter of intellectual assent to a number of facts or doctrines, but rather a daily trust in a personal God. Or as Enns puts it, “The problem with trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God: “We are not actually trusting God at the moment. We are trusting ourselves and disguising it as trust in God” (21). This kind of faith, Enns suggests, is ultimately a kind of mental idolatry. This reminds me of something that Dr. Gordon Fee once said as I sat in his Romans class at Regent College: “When push comes to shove, we Evangelicals think that we have special status with God because we have our theology right. Our theology becomes the Evangelical idol.

This, of course, is not to say that correct doctrine and theology aren’t important. Enns is not advocating for some sort of postmodern relativism. He’s simply arguing that we need to recognize that our ideas about God aren’t God. If we don’t realize this, chances are our ideas about God will soon become idols we feel we need to defend at all costs. The God of the Bible, though, doesn’t need to be defended. He wants to be followed, and following God can be a scary business, because the world is, after all, an uncertain and scary place.

And nothing scares Evangelicals more than anything that challenges their notion that the Bible is a “perfect” book. Anything that seems to threaten this notion is met with fierce opposition, for a common assumption within Evangelicalism is that in order for the Bible to be true, then it must infallibly accurate in every single historical and scientific detail. Never mind the fact that the Bible itself never makes such a claim, it is a claim that many Evangelical leaders ardently defend.

In light of that, Enns takes some time in his book give a brief historical overview of some of the biggest perceived “threats” to the Christian faith:

  • The Scopes Monkey Trial, that was seen as Fundamentalism’s counter-attack to evolution
  • The discovery of ancient Near Eastern mythological literature, that showed a considerable amount of similarities to the opening chapters of Genesis
  • The emergence historical criticism, that made various claims like Moses wasn’t the author of the entire Pentateuch
  • The fact that people have long used the Bible to justify slavery and racism
  • The denominational chaos that was the result of the Reformation’s claims of “Sola Scriptura”

Enns not only discusses these historical challenges to the Christian faith, he also discusses five specific issues that often have caused many Christians to question or even lose their faith:

  • The fact that in the Old Testament, God tells Israel to engage in mass slaughter
  • The theory of evolution seems to call the reliability of the Bible into question
  • The existence of so much suffering in the world calls God’s goodness into question
  • With the emergence of multiculturalism, it is becoming harder to believe that Jesus is the only way
  • The decidedly hostile and un-Christ-like behavior of many Fundamentalists who, in their zeal to “defend the Bible,” actually have deeply hurt many of their fellow Christians

Enns’ point in discussing these issues is pretty simple: Yes, they are tough issues. Yes, they might cause you to feel uncertain. Yes they might make you question what you believe. But maybe God wants you to step out in faith and embrace the challenge of wrestling with these issues. Maybe, just maybe, they are there to challenge us, transform us, and grow us up in our faith.

And here’s the kicker. If that thought scares you, Enns says, “Just read your Bible! It’s full of people doubting and questioning God…and God is okay with it!” With that, Enns shares his thoughts on a number of Psalms, as well as Ecclesiastes and Job, and shows pretty conclusively that the Bible itself bears witness that God prefers honest doubt and questioning, as long as you keep journeying down the road of faith.

But don’t be fooled, the road of faith is hard. It’s going to involve wrestling with uncertainty and doubt. It’s also going to include suffering, often at the hands of people who are certain that they must punish you for admitting your doubt. Nevertheless, like Jacob, when you wrestle with God, chances are you’re going to walk away with a dislocated hip, but you’ll also be given a new name, Israel.

Fredrick Buechner once said, “Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there was no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

The answer to that question is simple: God hasn’t revealed Himself in a way that leaves no room for doubt. Doubt is there because we are human, and doubt is the spur to get us to step out in faith. Enns writes, “Doubt is not the enemy of faith, a solely destructive force that rips us away from God, a dark cloud that blocks the bright warm sun of faith. Doubt is only the enemy of faith when we equate faith with certainty in our thinking” (157). And again, “Doubt isn’t a sign of spiritual weakness but the first steps toward a deeper faith” (158).

Peter Enns, the Old Testament scholar, has not written a book on Biblical Studies. He’s written a book about trusting God and living out the Christian faith. In doing so, he’s actually tapping into a long contemplative tradition within Christianity that goes all the way back to the early Church. It is a contemplative tradition that Evangelicals would do well to reclaim.

The Sin of Certainty is due out April 5th.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapters 15-16–Thus Ends the Argument (Plus Some “Pro-Woman Stuff” at the End) (Part 21)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapters 15-16–Thus Ends the Argument (Plus Some “Pro-Woman Stuff” at the End) (Part 21)

Here we come to the end of Romans, where Paul sums up his argument for unity in the Church.

Romans 15:1-6
Romans 15-1After his comments on “food and drink,” and how Jews shouldn’t pass judgment on Gentiles, and how Gentiles should not flaunt their freedom in the faces of their Jewish brothers, Paul makes his final appeal to Gentile believers: “We who are strong should bear the weakness of those who aren’t strong,” but at the same time…we should not live to please ourselves. Instead of judging and mocking each other, Paul wants the Jewish and Gentile believers resolve to please their neighbors (i.e. each other) for the good of building them up (v. 1-2).

Again, Paul appeals to Christ as the ultimate example (v. 3-4). And then, finally, Paul makes his final encouragement and appeal: “Through endurance and encouragement, may God give you the same mind among one another in keeping with Christ Jesus, so that you may glorify together the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice” (v. 5-6).  In case it’s not emphasized enough, let’s be clear: Paul is emphasizing the unity of the Church, so that the Church in Rome can truly be the People of God in Rome.

Romans 15:7-13
This section is the ultimate conclusion of the whole argument of Romans. It is straightforward and simple: Welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed you for the glory of God (v. 7). After all, they are God’s people, not your people! Look to Christ, who became a servant for the circumcised (i.e. Jews) on behalf of the truth of God—in order to make good on the promises He made to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)—and who became a servant for the uncircumcised (i.e. Gentiles) on behalf of mercy—in order to glorify God.

We need to remember that the whole purpose of God’s covenant with Abraham was so that He could eventually bring salvation and blessing to all nations. That promise, Paul is emphasizing, is being fulfilled in Christ and the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

With that, Paul unleashes a litany of Old Testament passages that serve as a final “Yeah God!” for fulfilling His promises:

  • 17:50 (I will confess you among the Gentiles….)
  • Deuteronomy 32:43 (Rejoice, Gentiles, with His people!)
  • Psalm 117:1 (Praise YHWH, all you Gentiles….)
  • Isaiah 11:10 (The one who rises to rule the Gentiles will be the root of Jesse, and the Gentiles will place their hope upon him).

Romans 15-13And so, with his argument made, Paul finishes with 15:13: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in having faith, in order for you to overflow in that hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. The actual argument of the letter ends here. From here on out, Paul then turns his attention to more practical/personal matters.

Wrapping Things Up (Romans 15:14-16:27)
The end of Paul’s letter contains a number of practical concerns Paul has that he wants to share with the church in Rome. In regards to the rest of chapter 15, in 15:14-22 he talks a bit about his ministry; in 15:23-29 he talks about his future plans (he hopes to make it to Rome; he plans to go to Spain; he talks about his journey to Jerusalem); then in 15:30-33 he asks them to pray for him.

In 15:14-22, Paul portrays himself as a “priestly servant,” and describes his ministry in Jewish-priestly terms. The Gentiles are the offering that he is presenting to God, as if he were a priest in the Jerusalem Temple. And using that “temple language,” Paul is trying to explain what exactly is happening with the Gentiles—they are being “brought into the Temple of God” and being made holy by the Holy Spirit. Of course, for Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers, the true Temple of God is the Church itself! But in any case, it should tell you how the early Church understood salvation—it wasn’t just some abstract “Get people saved” idea; it was seen against the backdrop of the Jewish Temple—salvation was “building up” the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In 15:23-29, Paul discusses his future plans. He wants to come to Rome, not really to stay there, but so that it can be the “sending church” so he can go on to Spain. Simply put, it’s “missionary strategy” stuff. Making contact and establishing a friendship with the church in Rome will help Paul in his plans to spread the Gospel to Spain.

In 15:30-33, Paul briefly mentions what he expects to happen when he visits Jerusalem to offer the Gentile gift. Simply put, he expects trouble in Jerusalem when he offers the Gentile gift. He realizes that he’s been rejected by unbelieving Jews, but at the same time, accepted by the “saints” in Jerusalem (i.e. Jewish-Christians).

Chapter 16 simply is a laundry list of greetings and the like. There really are only a few interesting things to note…especially for women.

  • First, in 16:1-2 we have the mention of Phoebe. She is described as a deacon of the church in Cenchreae—she is a leader…and a woman. The church there meets in her house, and she is a benefactor of many Christians. Since she was going to Rome on business, Paul gave her the letter to carry to Rome.
  • In 16:3-5 we have the mention of Prisca and Aquila. The wife (Prisca) is mentioned first—nowhere in ancient literature is this found. Hence, it is extremely rare to find this. In their house-church in Rome they were “co-workers” and the church there was understood to be equally theirs. Paul’s letter was to be read in their house-church first.
  • JuniaIn 16:7 we have the mention of Andronicus and Junia. In some earlier English translations, “Junia” was translated “Junias.” Why? Because Paul says that these two people were “great among the apostles.” The name “Junia” is clearly a woman’s name, and some translators with an anti-woman bias did not like the idea of a woman being called an apostle. (Now, “apostle” was not designated to only the Twelve until Revelation; throughout the first century, an “apostle” was anyone who had first-hand contact with Jesus). And so, they changed it to “Junias.” There is only one problem—there is no known “Junias” anywhere in ancient literature! In other words, there’s no such name as “Junias”! It’s a completely made up name. In any case, the more recent translations are being faithful to the actual Greek, and are translating it as “Junia.”

But that really is it to Romans. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Much more can be said as to how apply this letter to our day and age, but I’ll leave that as a challenge to anyone who reads this.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 14–Living with the Strong and the Weak in the Church (Part 20)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 14–Living with the Strong and the Weak in the Church (Part 20)

The final section of Paul’s argument in Romans is found in 14:1-15:13. It deals with relationships within the community of faith. Or to put it another way, it talks about how Christians need to treat each other. By addressing this, Paul is getting to the heart of how he wants the Gentile-Christians and Jewish-Christians in Rome to relate to each other.

When I took a class on Romans at Regent College, my professor Gordon Fee said, “Whatever else Paul is, he’s not an American!” Paul doesn’t think along “individualistic” lines. For Paul, if you are a Christian, it’s not a “Just me and Jesus” type of thing. You need to realize that you are part of the body of Christ, and therefore you must live your life in relation to other deeply flawed Christians just like you. Let’s face it, that is a very hard thing to do. Some people tend to be jerks, or too whiny, or too over-bearing, or too this or too that. Dealing with other people can be a big pain sometimes. Nevertheless, living together as a community of faith is what Paul is going to stress.

In order to make sense of the passage, you have to know who is who. “The weak” is a reference to Jewish-Christians, and “the strong” is a reference to Gentile-Christians. What Paul’s argument boils down to is this: Gentile-Christians have to accept their weaker brothers, the Jewish-Christians, who get easily hung up on issues like clean/unclean food, and Jewish-Christians are not to pass judgment on Gentile-Christians for not adhering to Jewish practices. The passage, therefore, is laid out like this:

  • 14:1-12: Paul sets forth the whole argument: Jews and Gentiles are not to relate to each other on the basis of Torah observance.
  • 14:13-23: Paul addresses primarily Gentile Christians, and explains the practical working out of the Gospel for the Gentiles.
  • 15:1-6: Paul makes his final appeal to the Gentiles
  • 15:7-13: The conclusion to the whole argument

With that, let’s begin…

The Strong: Don’t  Be Shmucks! (Romans 14:1)
Romans 14-1Paul starts off with a straightforward appeal. He challenges the Gentile-Christians to “receive those who are weak in the faith.” And who are those who are “weak in the faith”? That’s right: Paul says it is Jewish-Christians who place too much importance on Torah observance. At the same time, though, Paul makes it clear that the reason why Gentile-Christians should do this is “…not for the purpose of arguing over disputed matters.” In other words, Paul is saying to the Gentile Christians, “You might be theologically right, but you shouldn’t always ‘try to win’ by argument” when it comes to Torah observance.

I find it ironic that Paul lines up his fellow Jews with being “weak in the faith.” On the outside, they probably seemed “more religious” precisely because they were so concerned with the Torah. Let’s face it, even today, it is the more outwardly religious people—the people who give you weird looks if you have a beer—who we simply assume are “more spiritual.” It’s true today as it was back then: the “church ladies” are assumed to be the ones with a “strong faith.” Not so, according to Paul! As far as he is concerned, it is those types of people who are the truly “weak ones” because they really thought that Torah observance gave them special status in God’s eyes, and thus they were having a hard time truly grasping what faith really was.

In addition, it needs to be emphasized that Paul is also telling the Gentile-Christians to not only accept those who are hung up on certain Torah regulations, but to also not argue over those trivial things. If a Jew has a problem with eating meat, or if a person in your church has a problem with rock music, alcohol, or whatever, Paul’s message is simple: accept that person, even with their hang-ups. And for goodness sake, don’t eat meat, listen to rock music, or have a beer in their presence! It’s not because they are “really spiritual” and you have to be ashamed, but rather because they are actually the ones who are hung up on irrelevant things, and therefore you need to do the loving thing and just not make a big deal about it. In time, hopefully, they will come around to a more mature understanding of those things. But you can’t force the issue. Let the Holy Spirit change their heart in due time.

The Weak: Don’t be Judgmental! (Romans 14:2-6)
This leads into 14:2-3: Paul says that not only must the Gentile not despise the Jew for not eating everything (i.e. don’t make fun of the guy!), but also, the Jew must not judge Gentiles for eating everything (i.e. don’t accuse the guy for being a sinner!). Why? Simple: “for God has received him.”

Now, you might be wondering what the big deal with meat is all about. We must remember that pagan priests were the “holy butchers” in the Roman world. Jews therefore thought that because a pagan priest had butchered the meat that was sold in the marketplace, that the meat was essentially contaminated with “idol cooties.” That is why most Jews in the Roman empire became vegetarians. Well, Gentiles thought the Jews were just flat-out weird! I mean really, what kind of weirdos circumcise their sons, obey crazy food laws, and worship only one god (and they don’t even have an idol of that god!). And so, basically, Paul is telling Gentiles, “Don’t call the Jews weirdos!” and he’s telling Jews, “Don’t condemn Gentile-Christians as sinners!”

This leads into what Paul says 14:5-6 about Sabbath observance and food laws. Basically, Paul is saying two things:

  1. “If Gentiles have to work on the Sabbath, then they have to work! It doesn’t really matter!”
  2. “You can eat everything and give thanks to God! You can abstain from certain food and give thanks to God!” Either way is fine with God.

In both cases, Paul emphasizes that the important thing is giving thanks to God!”  Simply put, it is wrong to put undue emphasis on issues that are not important. Neither side should force the other side to change their ways on issues that simply are irrelevant. Anyone who does that is putting irrelevant issues ahead of Christ and the Gospel.

Don’t Judge Me! (Romans 14:7-10)
With that, Paul then “theologizes” in Romans 14:7-10 what he’s been saying in Romans 14:1-6. He says, that since “we are all the Lord’s,” you (yes, you!) are not to judge anyone in regards to irrelevant and disputed matters. Why? Because in the end, “all will stand before the judgment seat of God” (v. 10). Now, we need to clarify something here: Paul is not issuing a warning or threat here. He’s not saying, “You’d better watch what you do, because you’re going to get judged by God for it!” Quite the opposite. He’s actually saying that God is the one who has the right to judge a person, not us. It’s actually assurance: since you’re going to give account to God, I cannot judge you.

The Kingdom of God Isn’t About Beer! (Romans 14:13-18)
Romans 14-13Paul then appeals to both the Jewish and Gentile Christians in 14:13-23. He first appeals to them to stop “judging” one another over irrelevant issues. Then he plays upon the idea of “judging” by saying, “Let’s ‘judge’ not to set up a ‘stumbling block’ or ‘scandal’ before each other” (v. 13). Paul then appeals in 14:14 to what Jesus himself said in Mark 7: all foods are clean! (This is also emphasized in Acts 10, with Peter’s vision of the sheet out of Heaven). Nevertheless, though, (and now Paul specifically addresses Gentiles), if you eat supposedly “unclean food” in front of your Jewish brother, then, even though the food is clean in God’s eyes, you’re not walking in love (v. 15)—and that is the really important issue!

Romans 14-17Therefore, Paul says, “Don’t let your ‘good’ be blasphemed, for the Kingdom of God ISN’T ABOUT FOOD and DRINK but it is about righteousness, peace, and Joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 16-17). Paul’s point should be simple: don’t let an irrelevant things like a steak (or wine, or rock music, or whatever) give the Gospel of Christ a bad name. Don’t let it be used as something to turn people away from the saving grace found in Christ. In fact, 14:16-17 is the point of Paul’s entire argument: Paul is telling the Gentiles not to scandalize or deliberately offend their Jewish brothers and sisters by forcing issues of “liberation of food and drink,” because the Kingdom of God isn’t about of that stuff.

Well, If We Don’t Judge One Another, What’s a Christian To Do? (Romans 14:19-23)
With that, Paul turns in 14:19-23 to what Christians should pursue: things that bring peace with each other within the community, and things that build one another up. Therefore, don’t tear down the work of God for the sake of food (v. 20)! Paul then caps it off with a harsh challenge to both Jews and Gentiles: food is evil if you eat it in such a way that causes a stumbling block (v. 21) . BUT…food is good if you don’t do it in order to purposely make someone trouble. It’s just that simple.

Let’s Reflect Before We Go On
Before we wrap things up with Romans 15-16, let’s reflect on what Paul has said here in Romans 14. Back then the early Church was wrestling with various social issues that swirled about the whole question on how Jewish believers and Gentile believers were to relate to each other. It was an inevitable clash of cultures within the Church, precisely because in Christ all nations and peoples were to be united together in love.

Ah, but that’s so hard! The Jews really viewed not keeping Jewish purity laws as sin; the Gentiles really thought Jews who didn’t eat meat or didn’t work on the Sabbath were just nutty. And here is Paul, trying to get both groups to be one in Christ, and saying Torah observance really wasn’t important, and eating meat that had passed through pagan temples wasn’t sinful.

What we see here in Romans is the attempts of the early Church to work through the Gospel within their real-life cultural contexts. And like I said, that is hard. Think of social issues we wrestle with today. When I was a kid it was rock music, alcohol, dancing, and smoking. Today there are other issues, and often they have become strictly aligned with a particular political party platform. Living out and applying the Gospel to the ever-changing culture will always be a challenge. That is why we need to realize the heart of what Paul is saying here in Romans 14: the important thing is to try to relate to each other in love and to build each other up.

When you find yourself in a debate with another Christian over any particular controversial social issue, “winning the argument” might not exactly be what is loving or good. Even if you really are right on the issue, tearing the other person down might not be the best way to go about things. I have no “cure all” or easy answer to any of this. All I can say is this: keep in mind what Paul is saying. If you know of a fellow Christian who really has a problem with something you have no problem with, be gentle with that person. And if you are a Christian who has a big problem with what another believer is doing, ask yourself, “Is this issue a primary or secondary issue to the faith?” If it is secondary, don’t pass judgment. Sure, discuss the issue, share your thoughts, learn from one another.

But don’t pass judgment on secondary, irrelevant issues. And don’t belittle someone who is struggling with an issue. That’s something we can all remember to practice.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 13–Authority (Respect it!) and Taxes (Pay it!) (Part 19)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 13–Authority (Respect it!) and Taxes (Pay it!) (Part 19)

CartmanNews flash: Christians are not called to live only within their Christian community. They also have live in the real world, with pagans and secular (and sometimes hostile) authorities. So how should Christians live in relation to “the world”? This is the very issue that Paul addresses in Romans 13. What is specifically in question is obeying those in authority.

Respect My Authority!
One thing to keep in mind is that when Paul wrote Romans, Nero was the emperor. Yes, that Nero—the one who eventually launched the first persecution of Christians; the one who used Christians as human torches to light his gardens. Yes, that one.

Human TorchesStrange as it sounds, though, when Paul wrote Romans, Nero was not yet the madman he eventually became. The first five years of Nero’s reign were actually among the best of the Roman Empire. He was under the influence of Seneca, and therefore it was “good times” for Christians when Paul wrote this. The major question for Christians regarding Romans 13, though, is how does all this “submission to authorities” talk jive with Acts 1-7, where the apostles said to the Sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than man!”? They clearly were not “submitting to the authorities.” In addition, in Revelation, it is assumed that Christians should “resist the Beast,” and that the Beast and the Whore of Babylon were enemies of Christ. Clearly, John didn’t want Christians to “submit” to Rome then, and actually worship the beast-like emperor.

So what gives? How can one passage in the Bible tell us to submit to authorities, whereas other passages teach us clearly to resist them?

The answer actually is pretty simple: it depends on the circumstances.

  • When should you obey authority? When that authority is promoting what is good and just (as in Nero’s early reign).
  • When should you not obey authority? When that authority is promoting evil and injustice (as during the reign of Domitian).

“Tribulation” and “Wrath” (Why Dispensationalists Get Everything Wrong)
Now here is where something else must be emphasized: the difference between tribulation and wrath. Biblically-speaking, God’s people suffer tribulation, but not wrath. Tribulation is what God’s people suffer at the hands of “anti-Christ” rulers and governments, whereas wrath is God’s judgment on those who are rebellious, and essentially, “anti-Christ.”

Incidentally, this is where dispensationalist theology reads Revelation wrong. They talk about the “Great Tribulation” from Revelation 7:14-17 and claim that Christians will be spared from it. In reality, the angel tells John that the crowd he sees has come through the great tribulation (presumably a reference to Domitian’s empire-wide persecution of Christians)—they have suffered martyrdom, but are now with Christ. They have conquered the beast Domitian through their suffering of tribulation.

The New Testament is clear: Christians suffer tribulation. By contrast, what Christians will be spared from is God’s wrath. Later on, in Revelation 17-18, we see that Babylon the Great (i.e. Rome) will be forced to drink the cup of God’s wrath, precisely because she inflicted tribulation on His people (i.e. she got drunk of their blood).

Submit to Authorities (Romans 13:1-5)
With that in mind we can now look specifically at Romans 13. Remember, at this time, things were good for Christians in the Roman Empire. In Romans 13:1-5 Paul’s imperative was to “submit to authorities because God ordains authority.” Paul’s point is that authority is God’s gift to a fallen world. The law exists because people by their very nature aren’t good. Therefore, God has ordained that those in authority make sure that people, who by their very nature aren’t good, live good lives in harmony with each other.

By extension, Paul says that if you do what is good, then you won’t have to worry about suffering judgment and wrath by the hands of authority. The only people who have to be afraid of the authorities are those who do what is bad. As Paul says, the one in authority is God’s servant who punishes with wrath the one who does wickedness (13:3-4). Of course, Paul also makes it clear in 13:5 that you shouldn’t do good just so you won’t get punished, but rather because of conscience—because you’re a Christian.

Taxes…Yes, Stop Complaining Already, and Pay Them (Romans 13:6-10)
uncle-sam-taxesAnother issue that would be pressing for Christians is “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” The Jews certainly didn’t like paying taxes because they saw Roman as the Great Evil. And, just like Jesus said when he was questioned in the Temple about paying taxes, Paul’s answer in 13:6-7 is, “Yes, you should pay your taxes.” This is a logical outgrowth of 3:1-5—if the governing authority is God’s instrument to promote the good, then you should pay taxes to help the govern authority promote the good.

Paul then plays off the idea of “owing” things, and says that ultimately the only thing you “owe” to others is to love them (13:8-10). In fact, the one who loves the other fulfills the Torah. This echoes what Paul said back in 8:4: the just requirement of Torah is fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit. Therefore, since love does not do evil to his neighbor, love is a fulfillment of Torah.

Soldier On and Use Your Weapons of Light (Romans 13:11-14)
Paul then gives one last word regarding “the flesh” in 13:11-14 by using both “soldier” language and “day/night” imagery, by saying that “the night” (i.e. the old age of the flesh) is almost over, and “the day” (i.e. the consummation of the new Messianic age of the Spirit) is near.

Therefore, Paul calls for the believers to “walk in the day,” use “weapons of light,” and put off the “works of darkness.” And what are those “night time activities”? Paul articulates things that are normally associated with the pagan idolatrous world: immoral feasting, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, perverted behavior, rivalry and jealousy. These things (especially those first four!) are things normally done at night. So they are not only literally night-time activities, but they are also things that represent spiritual darkness. And so, Paul says, “Don’t do them! Put on Christ and don’t give an inch to the lusts of ‘the flesh.’”

Pretty straightforward stuff.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 12–Priests, Sacrifices, and What is Good–and a Few Burning Coals (Part 18)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 12–Priests, Sacrifices, and What is Good–and a Few Burning Coals (Part 18)

Romans-1-bible_article_imageWith all that “Gospel theology” in Romans 1-8, and then the questions regarding ethnic Israel now explained in Romans 9-11, Paul turns his attention to explaining the practical application of all that to the everyday lives of the Christians living in Rome. This is the focus of Romans 12-16.

By extension, what we find in Romans 12-15 very much applies to us as Christians living in America today. For here in Romans 12-15, Paul essentially gets to where the rubber meets the road. Talking theology is all well and good (and obviously quite necessary!), but living that theology out in the everyday world is what matters. If your theology isn’t actually lived out, then what you have isn’t faith…it’s just facts and arguments.

The way the next few chapters in Romans are laid out looks like this:

  • Romans 12:1-21: Paul addresses what it looks like to live the life of the Holy Spirit within the Community of Faith
  • Romans 13:1-14: Paul addresses what it looks like to live the life of the Holy Spirit within the Pagan World
  • Romans 14:1-15:13: Paul makes an appeal for the Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians in Roman to accept one another

With that introduction, let’s get to Romans 12…

Priests, Living Sacrifices, the New Age, and What is Good (Romans 12:1-2)
Romans 12:1-2 set up everything else that comes after it in the chapter. One thing should be clear: Paul is not talking about individualistic Christianity. He is talking about the corporate people of Godthe Church. This is something that highly-individualistic American Christians have to get their heads around. God’s goal of salvation is not simply to “save” individuals, so that those individuals can “go to heaven.” God’s goal of salvation is to re-create a people for His Name—the People of God. Therefore, by virtue of being the People of God, we must take care that we live as the People of God—we must take care that we are living out Christ-like relationships with other Christians within the Body of Christ. This is what Paul is getting at here in Romans 12.

Now, we need to spend a little time with these first two verses in chapter 12. First, Paul begins with what will be for some people to be a very famous verse: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices. This is your sensible act of worship.” In case you don’t get it, “living sacrifices” is an oxymoron. Paul is using the language of the animal sacrificial system and applying it to the daily life of the believer. In addition, since the one who offers the sacrifices is a priest, Paul is basically saying that believers are to offer their own bodies, just as Christ our high priest offered his, as a sacrifice that will help bring about the reconciliation of the world. Just as Christ was both priest and sacrifice, so are believers to be. Believers have a job to do: be priests, and that starts with offering themselves. Believers are called to be imitators of Christ: and that entails sacrificing ourselves for the reconciliation of others.

Romans 12-1In addition, Paul then calls presenting your bodies as “living sacrifices” as the believers sensible act of worship. This is important to note, because some translations like the NIV, NRSV, and ESV have spiritual act of worship. The Greek word here is λογικὴν (logican) (from where we get the word “logic”), not πνευματικὸν, which actually does mean “spiritual.” Now, although in a sense offering your body as a living sacrifice is spiritual, that’s not what Paul is talking about—he is saying that offering your body as a living sacrifice is the logical and sensible thing to do for a believer. This is completely opposite of how Paul described the senseless thoughts of the Gentiles in Romans 1:22-23, when they worship created things, and not the Creator.

Verse two also contains another horrible translation job by many translators. It should read “Don’t be conformed to this age,” not “Don’t be conformed to this world.” The reason why this is important is because Paul is specifically referring to the present old age (in contrast to the new Messianic age that was ushered in at Pentecost). This “already/not yet” worldview runs throughout Paul’s letter, and needs to be seen here as well. The reason why the believer can choose to not be conformed to this age is precisely because he has died to “the old age way of things,” and has been empowered by the Holy Spirit of the new Messianic age. And so, not only are believers not to be conformed to this age, but they are also to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Simply put, they must continue to walk in faith and by doing so, develop a new way of looking at things. It is this new Spirit-empowered worldview will make it possible for you to “discern the will of God”—not on the sense of “Does God want me to get this job or marry that person?” But rather to discern what is good. And note, Paul doesn’t say “discern what is right.” There is a huge difference sometimes between what is good and what is right. We need to realize that sometimes, even if you are right about something, it is not good to insist on your way, because you might hurt someone else. And if you knowingly hurt someone else simply because you have to prove that you are right, then what you’ve done is actually evil. And the aim of Pauline ethics is to determine and do what is good. We’ll see this play out in the next few chapters.

So Tell Me, How Do You Think About Yourself? (Romans 12:3-8)
So what is the outgrowth of “offering your bodies as living sacrifices,” “not being conformed to this age,” and “transforming your minds in order to discern what is good”? Paul articulates this in 12:3-8. It comes down to this:

  • Have a sober estimation of yourself
  • And do everything in the context of one another

Now, let’s get this straight. Paul is not saying that you should think of yourself as a worthless nobody. He’s saying be honest with yourself about yourself: know your weakness, your strengths, etc. Don’t think of yourself too highly or too lowly. And when he talks about “the measure of faith” given to you, he’s not talking about “saving faith” here. He’s simply saying that you should live out and practice the things you have been gifted with, with the purpose of using your gifts to serve others. That is why he talks about “one body/many parts” in 12:4-5. You are part of the one body of Christ, but you have been uniquely gifted in a special way, so use your unique gifts to serve others and strength the body of Christ.

This doesn’t mean you have to use your gifts in a literal church service or something like that. It means that you should use your gifts to build up other Christians. Paul essentially says this very thing in 12:6-8: wherever you are gifted, do that, whatever that may be: prophecy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, caring, showing mercy…the list can go on. But we should realize that “being spiritual” does not mean you have to do one specific thing. My gift, for example, is teaching—therefore, Paul would tell me, do that. But I do not really have the gift of either being a pastor, or caring for people in need—therefore, Paul would probably tell me, “Joel, don’t be a pastor! And when someone is going through a tough time, let someone who is naturally more sympathetic and caring go to that person…you tend to be a little cold!” And that’s okay—there are certain things I don’t do too well, there are other things I really do well. Paul’s advice is really just common sense: do the things that God has wired you up for, and don’t try to be someone you aren’t.

Life in the Spirit within the Church (Romans 12:9-21)
The rest of Romans 12 (verses 9-21) now consists of a series of imperatives/participles that act as a description of life in the Spirit. Simply put, Paul is saying that a “Holy Spirit community” should look like what he describes. First, in 12:9-10, Paul says that love within such a community will look like people putting others ahead of themselves. Now, it’s worth noting, that Paul doesn’t mean that you should try to think the other person is actually better than you. He is simply saying that you should put other people’s needs ahead of your own. Simply put, practice love that is self-sacrificial for the sake of other people’s needs. Second, in 12:11-13, Paul spells out a description of love within the community: doing what is good. And, directly applied to the Roman community’s situation, “what is good” means living together as one people of God. Paul wants Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians to be one people of God, not two. (I wonder that says about the over 20,000 Protestant denominations out there?)

The rest of 12:14-21 simply elaborates on what is good: bless those who persecute you, don’t curse; rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…the list goes on. But ultimately, it can be summarized by these two commands: “Live in harmony with one another” (v. 16), and “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (v. 18).

Let’s face it, such things are easy to read, but hard to put into practice. We love to talk about living in peace, but oftentimes we don’t want to actually have to work at it. We tend to want to have the Gospel, but then not to have its effects in our lives. We tend to want to hold on to our pain when someone hurts us, and then make that person pay! Believe me, I know exactly how that feels. But Paul won’t let us do that. A Holy Spirit community forgives wrongs and works toward peace and harmony with each other. That is a huge challenge for any Christian, but it is something that is essential to do.

One More Thing: What’s Up With the Burning Coals? (Romans 12:20)
Romans 12-20There is one last thing to note in chapter 12. What does “heaping burning coals on his head” mean (v. 20)? Well, Paul is not saying, “Hey, if someone sins against you, be really nice to that person so he’ll feel bad!” as if “making him feel bad” is the ultimate form of revenge! (In reality, such a mindset is just completely petty and passive-aggressive—and yes, I’m sure we all know people like that). Rather, what Paul is saying is this: when you do the Christ-like thing and repay evil with good, your “enemy,” when he sees your goodness in response to his evil, will find that his conscience is affected. “Burning coals” will be on his conscience—and hopefully he’ll respond to his conscience and repent. That is why Paul ends with, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). When you respond to evil with goodness, that person might be saved from his evil—you will have worked toward peace, and will have overcome evil with good.

Paul’s Letters to the Romans: Chapter 11–Remnants, Idolaters, and True Israel (Part 17)

Paul’s Letters to the Romans: Chapter 11–Remnants, Idolaters, and True Israel (Part 17)

In Romans 11, Paul wraps up his argument of Romans 9-11. Remember, Romans 9-11 is all focused on the issue regarding why Paul’s fellow Jews missed out and rejected their own Messiah.

Final Question (Romans 11:1-6)
And so, the final question in Romans 9-11 Paul addresses concerning Israel is, “Has God rejected His people, because they rejected Him?” Given all that Paul has said, his response might shock you: “No way!” After all, Paul himself was an Israelite! No, God hasn’t rejected Israel…ah but there’s the rub! Paul needs to illuminate his readers on who exactly Israel is.

ElijahPaul proceeds to explain what the real situation is with Israel by referring to the story in I Kings 19 about Elijah fleeing to Mount Sinai after his initial victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In 11:3-4, therefore, Paul points out that when Elijah complained to God about how unfaithful Israel was (I Kings 19:10), God told Elijah that there were 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed down to Baal (I Kings 19:17).

So what does that story have to do with Paul talking about Israel? It’s simple: the nation of ethnic Israel was never the real people of God; it was always a remnant. Just as in Elijah’s day, so it was for Paul: there was always a remnant of ethnic Israel that was part of true Israel, and that remnant was according to election by grace (11:5). And so, as Paul says, since it is based on grace, then it isn’t based on Torah. After all, if grace comes by the works of Torah, then grace really isn’t grace! (11:6).

Remnants and Non-Remnants/People and Idolatry ( Romans 11:7-10)
Okay, so if remnant Israel was elected by grace (and therefore part of true Israel), what about non-remnant Israel (i.e. the rest of Israel)? Paul now makes a shocking accusation in 11:7-10 against non-remnant Israel: he equates them with pagan idolaters! That’s what he means when he says that non-remnant Israel became “hardened.” That’s what he’s referring to when he cites Deuteronomy 29:3 and Isaiah 29:10. Those verses are about the judgment for idolaters: people become like what they worship, and therefore they become like their lifeless, deaf, dumb, and blind idols. By contrast, the same principle ends up being a blessing for worshippers of God: people become like what they worship, so therefore, they become like God, and are made into the full image of God.

Paul then cites Psalm 69:22-23: “Their table has become a snare…” Why? Because the Jews’ “table” consisted of all that God had given them (covenants, promises, etc.), and they began to essentially worship the gifts, and not the Giver. Ironically then, the ultimate “idol” of the Jews is the Torah! And so, instead of worshipping Christ, who fulfills the Torah, the Jews ended up bowing their knee to the Torah, thus making it their idol.

Paul Still is Holding Out Hope (Romans 11:11-16)
In 11:11-16, though, Paul shows that he’s remaining optimistic about his fellow Jews: Israel has only stumbled. So if 11:1-10 focuses on the fact that Israel’s fall isn’t total (i.e. there still is a remnant), 11:11-12 declares (at least hopes!) that Israel’s fall isn’t final—it only happened so that the Gospel could go out to the Gentiles and bring the Gentiles into the people of God.

Paul’s hope thus becomes that, since Israel’s transgression meant salvation for the Gentiles, that Israel would become so jealous of the Gentiles, they would end up choosing to accept Christ. Paul thinks, “How great would that be!” That is precisely why Paul says he’s “glorifying” his ministry by going out to as many Gentiles as he can—he’s trying to make his fellow Jews so jealous, that perhaps some of them will end up making a decision for Christ (11:13-14)! For, as Paul sees it, if their rejection of Christ means the reconciliation of the world, then if they end up accepting Christ, that would mean “life from the dead” for the nation of Israel, a clear allusion to Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (11:15-16).

As it turned out, though, the Israel as a nation never did accept Christ. We have to conclude, therefore, that Paul’s hope as expressed in 11:11-16 was never realized. We need to be clear: Paul is expressing his personal hope that his fellow Jews would one day accept Christ as their Messiah; he’s not making a prophetic declaration that they would.

Conclusion: Roots and Branches (Romans 11:17-36)
Olive TreeIn 11:17-24 Paul concludes Romans 9-11 with a stern warning to Gentile believers, by means of the elaborate metaphor of roots and branches introduced in 11:16. The metaphor is pretty obvious: (a) the tree and its roots are the people of God, (b) the “natural” branches that are broken off are unfaithful Jews, and (c) the “wild” olive branches are Gentile believers. So what’s Paul’s point? “If some of the ‘natural’ branches were broken off so that ‘you wild olive branches’  (i.e. Gentiles) could be grafted in among the other ‘natural’ branches (i.e. the remnant of Jews), then don’t get cocky, you Gentiles!” After all, if God didn’t spare some of the natural branches because they got arrogant and unfaithful, then He certainly won’t spare some of the wild olive branches if they get arrogant and unfaithful either (11:21)! In fact, if some of those unfaithful Jews repent, they’ll certainly be “grafted back in” (11:22-24)!

Paul ends Romans 9-11 with a something that often gets misunderstood: “A hardening has come upon Israel until the full number of the Gentiles comes in; and so all Israel will be saved” (11:25-26). Paul is not saying that eventually ethnic Israel (i.e. “all Israel”) will turn to Christ. What Paul is saying can best be explained with somewhat of a mathematical formula:

Remnant Israel + Full Number of Gentiles = ALL ISRAEL

“All Israel,” “True Israel” are the Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. This idea can be seen in Revelation 7 in the passage about the 144,000. In that chapter, John hears the number 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, but then sees a “great multitude from all nations.” What is the point? True Israel consists of believers from all nations. The number 144,000 is derived from another “mathematical formula”: 12 (representing the 12 tribes of Israel) x 12 (representing the 12 apostles to the Gentiles) x 1,000 (God’s number of completion) = 144,000. Therefore, the concept of the remnant of Israel + Gentile believers equaling True Israel is a concept that is fundamental to a New Testament/New Messianic Age/Kingdom of God worldview.

In Romans 11:27-32, Paul essentially “sums up” his point: just as Gentiles were disobedient and were shown grace, so too does the present situation with the Jews show that the Jews are disobedient, and can now be shown—and possibly accept—that same grace. And that leads to…

Romans 11:33-36. I think this is pretty straightforward. After you read this passage, you can easily sum it up as follows: “Wow! What a plan! Who could have ever guessed it? Only God could have pulled this off! YEAH GOD!” Does that sum it up pretty well?

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 10–Okay, How Did the Jews Screw Up? (Part 16)

Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Chapter 10–Okay, How Did the Jews Screw Up? (Part 16)

Before we move on to Romans 10, I want to point out that we must realize that the issues Paul is addressing in 9-11 are issues he had been dealing with for years. He was once like his fellow Jews, but his encounter with the risen Christ changed everything. He came to Christ, not because someone preached, but because he had a personal, historical encounter. Paul spent his life in the Old Testament texts, looking for the eschatological solution to the plight of the world. The bringing in of the Gentiles was to happen in the Eschaton, on the other side of the end of the age. This is important to realize because Paul didn’t find Christ and then start going back through the Old Testament, looking for texts to prove his new life. Instead, Paul found Christ, then saw all those texts that he had grown up with, studied, and lived with all his life, in a new light. He came to see that they had been fulfilled and had come to their completion through Christ and in the work of the Holy Spirit.

And given what we know from the first century about why the Jews as a whole ended up rejecting Christ, we realize that it wasn’t because of Christ himself, but rather because they saw the Gentile God-fearers “get in” to the righteousness of God and receive the Spirit without having to go through circumcision. Simply put, the Jews got jealous, and because of that, they rejected Christ. None of the early apostles ever thought that would happen. They fully expected all their fellow Jews would accept their Messiah. And so, when this didn’t happen, this was what Paul and the early Church ended up having to wrestle with: What are you going to do with the historical reality that most Jews did not accept Jesus as their Messiah?

With that in mind, Paul now asks the next question…

Why Did the Jews Miss Out? (9:30-33)
“What are we going to say?” Paul says. The unthinkable has happened: Gentiles who haven’t pursued righteousness have attained righteousness: a righteousness from faith; but the Jews who have pursued the Torah of righteousness didn’t attain the righteousness to which the Torah bore witness!

TorahSimply put, the problem was that the Jews ended up focusing so much on the Mosaic Law (i.e. Torah), that they ended up forgetting the very Abrahamic covenant on which Torah was based. Basically, they missed what Torah was all about. They pursued Torah, thinking it would result in righteousness…but as Paul pointed out earlier, that was never Torah’s purpose. This is what Paul is saying in Romans 9:30-33—Israel’s “righteousness” was not based on faith; it was based on works of Torah. Because of that, they ended up “stumbling over the stumbling stone,” Christ himself. He was the intended cornerstone, but Israel rejected the way God was going about building his “new temple”! In other words, Paul is saying that unbelieving Israel is the unfaithful one, and is therefore responsible for missing out on the righteousness of God, not God.

τέλος (10:1-4)
This is not to say that there is nothing good about the Jews. In Romans 10:1-8, Paul goes out of his way to acknowledge how zealous the Jews were for God. The problem, though, was that their zealousness wasn’t according to knowledge. And so, Paul says, since they don’t know the righteousness of God, and since they are trying to establish their own righteousness, they didn’t submit to the righteousness of God. Simply put, they wanted to be like Frank Sinatra: they wanted to do it their own way!

But Paul states emphatically that Christ is the “end” of the Torah in regards to righteousness for those who have faith (10:4). Now, it is unfortunate that the word “end” is used to translate the Greek word τέλος. For Paul is not saying, “Now that Christ is here, the Torah gets thrown out!” Rather, the word τέλος has more of a meaning of full realization and full growth. Therefore, when Paul calls Christ the τέλος of the Torah, he is saying that Christ is everything that the Torah was point towards, and that Christ is the fulfillment of everything God was trying to convey through the Torah.

Think of it this way: if the Torah is the pointer, and faith in Christ is what it is pointing to, if you then reject Christ because you think focusing on the pointer is what God wants…you’re missing the point!

Two Kinds of Existence: Torah or Faith (10:5-8)
And so, as Paul spells out in 10:5-8, there are ultimately only two kinds of existence: a life based on Torah or a life based on faith. And here’s the thing: they are mutually exclusive—you can’t do both. Paul spells out the righteousness based on the Torah by alluding to Leviticus 18: the person who does these things must live by them. This is similar to what Paul says in Galatians 3:10, where he says, “Those who are of works of the Torah are under a curse, for it has been written: ‘Everyone who doesn’t remain in everything that has been written in the Book of the Torah is cursed to do these things’” (my translation). Simply put, the ones who live by “works of Torah” are cursed because they have to do Torah! They can’t live by faith! The curse is that you have to live by Torah!

Paul is saying that those who rely on their own ability to try to do the “works of Torah” are cursed, because they are on a treadmill that they can never get off of. It’s like a baseball player thinking if he gets enough hits in a row that he will be able to achieve a batting average of 1.000—it’s impossible because he hit .320 last season, and therefore has failed at the plate 68% of the time. There is no hit streak long enough to erase the previous failures, and to give that player a perfect batting average. He’s cursed if he thinks he can achieve it. Therefore, those who think that righteousness and perfection can be obtained through our own efforts of obeying the Torah are already cursed, because it’s simply an impossibility. They’re doomed to fail. Therefore, Paul says that that kind of “Torah existence” is a curse in and of itself.

By contrast, Paul then discusses the righteousness based on Faith. When reading 10:6-7, it might seem confusing, but here’s Paul’s point: the righteousness based on faith doesn’t need anyone else to either “ascend to heaven” or “descend into the abyss,” because Christ already has done it. Therefore, because of what Christ has done, “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut. 30:12-14). What Paul is saying is that people who are made righteous from faith realizes that the Word of God can be found within them, in their daily faith in Christ in the present. Therefore that person is not worried about having to ascend to heaven or descending into death in order to “get righteousness.” To try to do that would  be essentially to nullify the work of Christ.

The Last Days Have Arrived! (10:9-13)
This talk of having the word in your mouth and heart leads Paul to elaborate on a few things in 10:9-13: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). Now, Paul is not saying that if you simply say the words, “Jesus is Lord,” that that is somehow a “magic formula” that gets you saved. His reference to both Jews and Gentiles should make it obvious what Paul is saying: anyone can do this—Jew or Gentile—anywhere! Faith in Christ is available to everyone! This isn’t so much “how to get saved” formula, but rather a statement saying, “If you are doing this, then this is the sign that you are saved.”

Joel 2-32Paul then quotes Joel 2:32, which says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter quotes this very section in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:17-21, so clearly this passage in Joel was pretty important in the early Church. We can find out why it was when we look at Peter’s sermon. After quoting Joel, who talked about the “last days,” Peter says that that passage was being fulfilled at Pentecost. Both Peter and Paul were expressing a fundamental worldview of the early Church: the “last days” have come—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the sign that the “last days” had come. And, as Joel states, when the “last days” come, and when God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh, then, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Simply put, the Gentile mission was evidence that the “last days” had arrived.

Can Jews Be Excused for Their Unfaithfulness? (10:14-21)
In 10:14-21, Paul then gets to the heart of the Jewish objection to what God had done: (1) “Can the Jews be excused for their unfaithfulness?” Paul’s answer is a clear, “No!” Or to put it another way, (2) “Have the Jews really gotten a fair shake? Have they really clearly been shown?” Paul’s answer to that is a clear, “Yes!”

Now, when one usually reads 10:14-15, it is assumed that this is some kind of admonition to go out and spread the Gospel. These verses have been quoted and preached upon in many missions conferences and mission-emphasis weeks in churches. And although it is true—we are to go out and spread the Gospel—that’s not what Paul is talking about here. In context, these verses are actually part of Paul’s point to show that his fellow Jews have no excuse. His point is this: the Jews have long been looking for the Messiah; they’ve heard and read about him in their Bibles; they’ve actually gone out and proclaimed it! And so, Paul asks, “Can we blame the Jews for not turning to Christ? Have they really been clearly told about him?” Paul gives the obvious answer, “Of course! Not only were they told, but they preached about it from their own Bibles!”

The problem wasn’t that the Jews hadn’t heard about God’s salvation plan and its culmination in  Christ; the problem was a lack of obedience. Paul then quotes Isaiah 53:1: “Lord, who has believed our message?” Clearly not all Jews truly believed the message of God’s salvation. Real faith, as Paul says, stems from truly hearing (i.e. obeying) through the Word (i.e. message) of Christ. Therefore, the Jews who failed to put their faith in Christ were never truly faithful or obedient to God in the first place. And so, as Paul asks in 10:18-21, haven’t the Jews heard? Of course! Paul then quotes Psalm 19:5 to prove his point: They had it in their Bibles! They actually spread the Word! They can’t say they hadn’t heard! And then Paul asks, “Did Israel just not really understand?” Of course they understood! Paul then quotes Deuteronomy 32:12 and Isaiah 65:1: It was clear from the Torah and Prophets that God was going to do it this way, and that they were going to get jealous!

And so, in 10:21, Paul drives his point home regarding Israel by quoting Isaiah 65:2. The reason why Israel didn’t accept the Messiah is simple: Israel was disobedient, plain and simple, no excuses. Pretty harsh…but true.

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