The Demoralizing Dogmas of Calvinism

In a letter that he wrote to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Thomas Jefferson offered a fabulous description of “Calvinism.” In contrast to the teachings of Jesus, which are “simple, and tend all to the happiness of man,” he offers the five “demoralizing dogmas of Calvinism.”

  1. That there are three Gods.
  2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
  3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
  4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
  5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.

I strongly recommend emailing this to any Calvinists you know. They will really appreciate it.

Flotsam and jetsam (3/10)

Wow, Flotsam and Jetsam two days in a row? It’s like Christmas, but without all the crowds, shopping, and drunk relatives. (Actually, you probably still have some drunk relatives hanging around. Check your closets.)

  • Carl Trueman offers a good example of careful historiography in explaining why he thinks Rob Bell is wrong when he asserts that Martin Luther believes in a second chance for salvation after death.

Building arguments on theological soundbites, especially from the works of prolific and sophisticated theologians such as Luther, is surely very tempting in today’s instant internet age. We all want our fifteen minutes of fame but none of us want to spend any more than fifteen seconds doing the grunt work necessary to achieve it. Yet, like a lady of easy virtue, such an approach may have immediately seductive charms but ultimately proves a rather cruel mistress for the would-be historian

To many people, art is superfluous or even distracting from what is truly important. It holds entertainment value, keeping people engaged, or perhaps pleasantly distracted, but is not substantive, and is certainly not integral. To others, it is fundamental; it is a door through which they enter into divine relationship. My heart breaks for the former category.

Several recent reports suggest that the evangelical Christian world, as we have come to know it over the last 30 years, may be changing forever.

The Dark Passenger – an analogy of sin and addiction

What is this within me that drives me to do the things that I do? Where does it come from? Why won’t it let me go? What’s wrong with me? Can I be fixed?

These are the recurrent question raised in season 2 of Dexter. Throughout the season, Dexter struggles to come to grips with what he calls his “dark passenger” who is with him wherever he goes and drives his need for violence. Although it rests deep within him, it feels like a stranger. Some alien force controlling his every action. He strives to hide it from everyone around him, but it’s always there.

In the show, the “dark passenger” works best as a an analogy for addiction. But, as I watched, it struck me as a powerful picture of sin as well. As Paul says, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

Here are a couple of the more powerful scenes describing Dexter’s dark passenger. (See also my post on 5 Things I Learned about the Gospel from a Serial Killer.)

The Theology and God of Lady GaGa

She is one of the most interesting/disturbing pop culture figures today.  She is likened to other pop divas as Brittney Spears, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera, but has cut out a name for herself in her own right.  She wears dresses made of raw meat and has one of the most eclectic wardrobes of all time.  Every song she produces is a number one hit and I can guarantee that almost every person from the ages of 8-35 (respectively) knows of her or about her.

What you may not have known about Lady Gaga is that she is a theologian!  It may surprise some, but she has a view of God, informed by some type of sources, and she teaches a particular doctrine(s).  Her latest song, Born This Way, which has stood in the number one spot on iTunes since being released, is called the “Manifesto of Mother Monster,” making it a type of creed for people to live by.  The entire song has two goals: 1) To get people to love and accept themselves as they are, and 2) To get people to be love and accept others as they are.  The logical reasoning for this acceptance is found in the chorus:

I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

Don’t hide yourself in regret,
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way
(Born this way)

Sounds like a decent message.  She brings God into the equation, and does make an appropriate and true statement about him, “God makes no mistakes.”  What Christian can argue with that message?  To argue anything other than that is to accuse God of making mistakes, being ignorant of what is going on in the world, and unable to govern his universe.  We know from Scripture, however, that God is infinite, wise, all-powerful, and accomplishes exactly what he wants.  He truly makes no mistakes.

She makes another partially true statement about “being born” the way you are.  If you’re white, black, brown, American, Chinese, or Lebanese God caused you to be born this way.  Again, true.  We know from Acts 17:26-27 that God established the boundaries of men, allotted them the periods of time they would live in, and what nationality they would be.  Who could argue that from the womb they got to plead a case for where they wanted to be born, or what nationality they wanted to be, or what language they wanted to speak.  No, God did that and according to Paul he did it in the hope that men would seek him.

Where Lady Gaga goes wrong is in saying that there is no distinction between nationality and sin.  If God makes no mistakes, and God is in control of your nationality and time of birth, then God also made you lesbian, gay, straight, or bisexual.  Our acceptance of one’s nationality or gender, should be no different from our acceptance of their sexuality.  What Lady Gaga fails to consider, however, is that although God makes no mistakes, man makes plenty of them and has been doing so since the Garden of Eden.  Is it a sin to be African American?  No.  Is it a sin to be a white male?  No.  Is it a sin to be a female from Argentina?  No.   Is it a sin to be lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or a sexually immoral heterosexual?  Yes.  When it comes to nationality or gender, you have no choice.  When it comes to your sexuality you do, and the Bible is clear when it comes to this issue.

Why does a pop song matter?  It matters because everyone is a theologian.  And the question is not whether or not a person has a theological grid for understanding who God is.  The question is whether or not the Bible and the person and work of Jesus Christ inform that theological grid.  Lady Gaga is training/discipling/preaching to culture and the people in your church, especially students, to grid their view of God and others through a particular lens, one of love and acceptance.  And that grid is extremely popular in our day!  That’s not necessarily a bad thing to call people to.  Christians should be calling each other to love people.  However, the danger is that this grid does not take into account the justice of God, the reality of sin, the brokenness of man, the wrath of God against sin, or the desire of God to forgive sinners in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  She’s mixing truth with the cyanide of lie, and great hosts of people are drinking the juice.

If Lady Gaga is right, then it is not sinful for a man to be an alcoholic who beats his wife.  After all, God made me to love alcohol and hate women.  I was born this way.  It’s not a sin to molest little children.  After all someone’s sexual preference for small children would be no different from the lesbian, gay, or heterosexual persons.  Just ask the North American Man/Boy Association.  They were born that way.  And if you’re really going to buy into the god of Gaga, then not only do you simply need to love and accept yourself for being this way, but all of us who disagree with your lifestyle simply need to be more accepting.  If Lady Gaga would disagree with me, that in fact pedophilia and spousal abuse is evil (sin?), then it would be appropriate to ask her on what authority she stands, and why we should believe her?   At this point, please spare me the argument about genetic DNA that shows certain propensities towards certain actions.  All I have to say to that is, welcome to the human race.  We all have those, and it doesn’t make one’s particular actions any more right/good, or them any less responsible for their choices.

According to Scripture however, we learn that God makes no mistakes, he is sovereignly ruling his creation, and that sin has entered and corrupted what was good.  What the creation hates is that the Creator God gets to define what sin is.  Since a rebellious creation does not like his definition, it attempts to redefine and write its own.  The good thing is that God will not stand for his creation rebelling against him and destroying itself, so he intervenes.  He models what love really is by sending his own Son to make right what was made wrong and restore relationship.  In this God shows his love and acceptance towards sinners (really horrible ones as well, just ask Paul), and his absolute hatred of sin.  There is such a thing as sin, God gets to say what it is, it will be accounted for, and everyone will have to deal with Jesus.  We were “born this way.”  This way is broken and needs redemption.  Thank God that we have a redeemer.  It is the height of arrogance, rebellion, and stupidity to rejoice in a sin sick state, when the remedy has been provided.   Praise God that although we were “born this way,” we don’t have to stay in it.

Tips for the ThM – part 16 (how to use a journal article)

I often recommend journal articles as the most valuable resource for the budding scholar. They are typically shorter, more accessible, and more current than published books. But, they can also be more difficult to read if you don’t know what you’re doing.

As a recent article on Inside Higher Ed points out, reading a journal article is very different from reading Harry Potter, something I hope you’ve already noticed. But, you may not have given a lot of thought to the specific reading strategies that are most helpful for digging into a scholarly article. So, building off the suggestions offered in that article, here are my tips for using journal articles effectively.

  1. Determine your purpose and reading strategy and for the article. Are you reading this for background information on a topic and will therefore skim through it reasonably quickly? Or, does the article deal with a key argument that you need to engage closely?
  2. Identify the main point of the article. Pay close attention to the abstract and introduction as these will typically tell you exactly what the article is going to do. Once you’ve identified the primary claims the author makes, feel free to stop reading if you no longer think that it will accomplish your primary purpose (see step 1).
  3. Quickly skim the rest of the article. Using headings, introductory/summary paragraphs, and the article’s conclusion, you can usually get a very good sense of the author’s main points and the structure of the argument. If your purpose and reading strategy dictate a relatively quick engagement with the article, this may be all you have to do. (I’d say that I never get past this point with at least half of the articles I read, maybe more.) Even if you’re sure that you’ll need to engage the article more deeply, get a sense of the whole article before you try digging into the parts. You’ll understand each step of the author’s presentation better if you know how it fits within the whole argument.
  4. Pay attention to footnotes. As you’re quickly skimming the article (step 3), take a look at the footnotes. That will help you assess what kind of article you’re dealing with. Is it heavily researched/documented, or more of an essay offering largely the author’s thought on some subject. It it largely dependent on secondary sources, or does it engage directly with primary source material? Do they contain a lot of argumentation, or are they mostly lists of resources? A quick glance at the footnotes will help you understand what the article is doing and whether it is still useful for the purpose you identified in step 1.
  5. Summarize the article in your own words. My students know that I’m a big fan of writing a short summary of any research article or book that you pick up. It’s very helpful when you’re writing a paper. And, after a few years, you’ll have developed an outstanding research database for future work. A few quick sentences summarizing the article’s main point, key contributions, and your assessment, will suffice for later reference.
  6. Take notes, but not too many. Many times, your summary will suffice and you won’t need to take notes at all. If you need to engage the article more deeply, identify the most important quotes that you can refer to later when you engage the article in your paper. But, resist the temptation to take a lot of notes. It’s time consuming, and you will probably never use the majority of those notes. If the article has so much good content that you think you’ll need a ton of notes, copy the whole article and stick it in your file for later reference. (When I do this, I make a note with the summary that the article is now on file so that I don’t forget later.)

(For the rest of my Tips for the Th.M., see this roundup.)

Flotsam and jetsam (3/9)

  • Bob Hyatt discusses his journey toward women in leadership.

My original vision for our community included a male “elder” board that handled the “shepherding” and a co-ed “leadership team” that handled the details of administration and ministry.
But a funny thing happened: I changed. I went back to Scripture, prayerfully re-examined what it said and what that meant against the backdrop of the culture at the time, and I came to different conclusions.

This heartbreaking mythical Medieval tale captures the imagination and rebukes human folly. How high our dreams and visions of changing the world! How disappointed we are when the sea fails to part before us. We who invoke the name of Christ and carry the banner of his cross are no less subject to the vicissitudes, disappointments, and failures of life. We bear the ashes on this holy day to remind us of our oneness with all humanity and to confess our inability to change the fundamentals. Our strategies will fail and we will die.

But as it stands, the Confessions presents a terrible irony that may underline its basic message in spite of itself. Augustine’s worst sin might be one that he himself remained unaware of, one that his saintly mother aided and abetted him in carrying out, and one that remained imperfectly confessed because imperfectly understood.

The shortest description I’ve come up with for the overall intellectual task is that it’s somewhere between “A Theology of California” and “Theology from California.”

  • Political Jesus has been reflecting on the Chalcedonian Creed and its significance for today (see here, here, and here).
  • Several people have commented recently on Miroslav Volf’s article regarding whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God (see Brian LePort, Bobby Grow, and Will Molenaar).

We are beggars, this is true

The amazing truth is that God invites us into his story even while we are still sinners. Remember, we’re a mess. We don’t live in shalom, we live in shoah. We are the unfaithful spouse who spurned God countless times and spread corruption and pollution everywhere in his creation. We’re the ones who rejected God and began worshipping ourselves. We’re the sinners.

And, that’s precisely who God invites into his Kingdom.

The closest I can come to imagining this is to think about what it would be like for me to come home one day and find some homeless guy sitting on my front step. He’s dirty and it smells like he’s been drinking nonstop since the sun came up. He’s clearly had a rough life. And he’s sitting outside my front door.

On the other side of that door is my home, my family, my shalom. What should I do? Should I open the door? Should I invite him in? Should I bring this man into my home, introduce him to my daughters, seat him at my table, and share my life with him? Or, should I sneak through the garage, hoping that he doesn’t see me, leaving the door closed, protecting my shalom from his corrupting presence?

If I’m honest with myself, the best I could probably hope for is that I would take him to a homeless shelter where he could get cleaned up and back on his feet. When he’s a little more respectable, a little less drunk, and much safer, then maybe I’ll invite him over for dinner.

Until then, the door stays closed.

That’s not how God’s Kingdom works. Seeing us outside the door to his Kingdom, what does he do? He invites us in. And, he doesn’t ask us to go get cleaned up first. Instead, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). God knows us in all of our brokenness. He knows the sins that we wear on our sleeves, and he knows the corruption that we hide deep within. And still he opens the door so we can enter his home, sit at his table, be a part of his family, share in his shalom.

When God comes home and sees us homeless beggars standing on his front step, he opens the door.

God’s table is not for the respectable. God’s table is for the broken, the poor, and the shamed.

That’s us. We are the beggars.

The good news is that God invites us to dinner, and we don’t have to get cleaned up first.

(If you aren’t aware, the title for this post comes from the last words reportedly spoken by Martin Luther before he died. You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.)

Luther on the Power of Questions

In my church history class last week, we discussed Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Toward the end, I was struck once again by the powerful way that he used questions to drive home a point. Like any good communicator, he knew how to use questions as an effective rhetorical tool.

As, for example, Luther was not just asking questions when he put forth the following:

Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.

Or, my personal favorite:

Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?

And, just for the fun of it, here are a couple more.

What does the pope remit or dispense to people who, by their perfect repentance, have a right to plenary remission or dispensation?

What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?

I’m relatively certain that Luther knew he was not just asking questions. And, I bet the pope got the hint as well.

At the same time, I’m reminded of a more recent debate. One of the more commonly offered comments in response to the promo video for Rob Bell‘s forthcoming book is that “He was only asking questions.” No, in a context like that, you are never just asking questions.

Now, as with many rhetorical devices, it’s often an interesting task to try and discern exactly what someone is doing with questions. But, let’s all agree that sometimes a question is not just a question.

Sometimes we need to sound like universalists

In an interesting post this morning, Scot McKnight argues that sometimes we need to sound like universalists because that how the Bible sounds at times.

I will put it this way: there are passages that sound univeralistic, that sound like somehow God will reconcile all things in the End, and that if we don’t occasionally sound universalistic we are not being as biblical as God — and as Jesus and Paul. Yes, these passages are not the only ones to consider, but — let this be said — neither are they cushioned or cautioned or cornered off by Jesus and Paul so they don’t give the wrong impression. What the Bible is talking about here is that God’s grace will win. God will make all things right. I’m not a universalist but I want this language to be the way I talk about these topics.

I think this is a very helpful way of framing the discussion. The Bible does press the language of God’s grace and sovereignty at times in such a way that it sounds like universalism is the only possible conclusion.

My only concern is that we not sound this theme without also allowing the rest of the biblical picture to come out.  So, I appreciated McKnight’s balanced conclusion at the end of his post:

To talk about wrath apart from this depiction of the grace-consuming God is to put forward a view of God that is not only unbiblical but potentially monstrous. And, to put forward a view of God that is absent of final judgment, yes of wrath, yes of eternal judgment, is to offer a caricature of the Bible’s God.

Along the way, he also offered a stern and timely rebuke for those who seem to delight primarily in being right (on both sides of this discussion), losing sight of the true immensity of this difficult subject.

It’s a good post that is worth checking out.

Mind over Medicine – an interesting video on the placebo effect

Here’s a short video that does an outstanding job explaining the power of the placebo effect and the amazing ability that our minds have to trick us in ways that can actually impact bodily functions. One of these days I’m going to come up with a way of giving myself placebos so that I can trick myself into being healthier and smarter than I actually am. Or something like that.