Here’s your Tuesday Tea-ology for the week! In this episode, a discussion of pantheism and panentheism. Why is it so important that God is personal? And, is white chocolate mocha tea any good?
Writing a couple days ago about the call of the gospel involved expressing that the gospel call is urgent. It matters whether or not people hear the message of Christ, and whether or not those who hear believe; it matters because there is judgment to come, and where you stand in the day of judgment depends entirely on whether or not you are in Christ.
This is the perennial scandal of the Christian faith. True Christianity will always be scandalous to the world, though different aspects of the faith will be scandalous in different times and places and cultures. But the exclusivity of the gospel message is a perennial scandal, because it stands against every worldly ideology and religion, and because it is at the irreducible core of the Christian message: eternal life is found in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone. You have to place your faith in Him if you are to be saved.
This claim is denied not only by avowed secularists, but by some who claim to be Christians. I came upon the website of a liberal Episcopalian church in San Francisco, noteworthy (among other things) for how they use their sanctuary for a popular yoga program–the sentence “Colorful mats cover the labyrinth, the aisles and even the altar” has a certain resonance with 2 Kings 16. I saw that they had sermons online, audio and transcripts; I wanted to see what their preaching was like, but didn’t want to give it a lot of time. I needn’t have been concerned; my sampling suggests that, in keeping with typical liberal practice, their sermons range from fairly brief to very brief. Given their beliefs, brief is probably for the best.
So here is a sermon from “The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clements Young.” He’s the dean of the cathedral and has a Doctorate of Theology from Harvard, so no one can say I’ve chosen a straw man. His text is John 3:16-17…and if you say, ‘Why just through verse 17? …aha, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
John 3:16 is quite understandable a beloved passage, a one-verse encapsulation of the gospel. Dr. Young, in his short message, says a number of things, some of them good. But things get particularly suspicious about halfway through–manuscript page 3, that is–when he turns to examine Jesus’ reference to the bronze serpent, a story detailed in Numbers 21.
The Israelites were complaining against God, and the text says, “Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them” (Num. 21:6, NIV), but Dr. Young says “God allows poisonous snakes to come among them”; perhaps the change from God’s direct action to divine permission is unintentional. But stranger is Dr. Young’s assertion that “In both this exodus story and the Gospel of John sin is less a punishment from God than it is a self-destructive human choice.” Well, yes, the sin of the Israelites is a self-destructive choice–and if that’s all he meant, that’s one thing, but we’re still going to have to grapple with Romans 1–but the punishment from God is clearly present: they chose to grumble against God, but God sent the venomous snakes.
Dr. Young brings this back to John 3, which is good, and Jesus’ statement that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (Jn. 3:14). But this is Dr. Young’s comment:
“In this world which is poisoned by envy, greed, fear, betrayal and death – Jesus promises that we can be healed by experiencing him near to us in our suffering, and the hope that we have for the resurrection”.
Is that all Jesus promised, His nearness in our suffering? Why no mention of the atoning significance of His death upon the cross?
After this suspicious beating-about-the-bush about the wrath of God and atoning work of Christ, Dr. Young makes his last point quite clearly:
“My last point has to do with what my friend Matt Boulton calls the “anti-Gospel.” Gospel means good news and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really good news for all people, not just Christians. It is the message that God does not condemn the world, but always reaches out to save us even when our choices have led us disastrously astray. But somehow many Christians warp Jesus’ words into an anti-gospel which is a message of contempt and exclusion.”
The Gospel, for Dr. Young, appears to be a message of universal salvation. Faith in Christ is not necessary, and those who say that it is are guilty of promoting “an anti-gospel which is a message of contempt and exclusion.” This is the rhetoric of the religious left, where ‘inclusion’ is good and ‘exclusion’ is bad, and where the other side is regarded as showing hatred or contempt. But how does this message square with the very text of Scripture being expounded? Dr. Young quotes John 3:16 in its entirety, so he has right there before him that the verse says “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say that Christ gives life to everyone; it says He gives life to those who believe in Him.
How does Dr. Young deal with this? He doesn’t, really. He emphasizes that the text is saying this is a demonstration of the way God has shown His love:
“The Greek doesn’t mean to emphasize “how much” God loves us but instead shows us the character of God’s love, that God loves us in this way, through not even withholding his own son. The point is not that Jesus only saves the few who believe, but like the Israelites looking at the snake, everyone is healed by God through Jesus.”
Like the Israelites looking at the snake? But it wasn’t all of the Israelites who were healed by the bronze serpent–it was only those who looked at it. In the same way, it isn’t all people who are saved by Jesus, but only those who believe in Him. The parallel seems to work rather against Dr. Young than for him. Can he really justify such a shaky interpretation in the face of the clear teaching of the biblical text?
He can try. Here’s the clincher:
John confirms this interpretation and writes, “God did not send his son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3).
He’s quoting John 3:17, a wonderful verse about God’s love. Jesus came to save. God sent His Son to be our Savior. And, if this verse was all we had to work with, we might conclude that it teaches a universal salvation, regardless of whether people know Jesus or not.
But this verse doesn’t stand alone, and a basic principle of biblical interpretation is that verses must be interpreted in context. The verse before it, verse 16, says that it is those who believe who are saved. What about the verse that follows?
And this is why it is so interesting that Dr. Young stopped with verse 17. Now, I can’t read his mind. Maybe he forgot what verse 18 said. Maybe he just didn’t have time to bring it up. But it is awfully interesting that he didn’t mention the verse that says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn. 3:18).
So we have an Old Testament parallel and two clear assertions that a response of faith is required in order to receive the life Christ offers, sandwiching the ambiguous verse that Dr. Young tries to use to nullify the clear message. It is overwhelmingly obvious that Dr. Young has misinterpreted the Scripture, and has done so in a way that shows either a remarkably careless disregard for the context or a deliberate desire to twist the message of the gospel.
He wants to do away with the exclusivity of the gospel. In the process, he has thrown out the urgency of the gospel, for a message of universal salvation is not a message that anyone needs to hear; and, if heard, it is a message that perfectly suits the individualistic self-determination of the (post)modern west, because it means that how you choose to live your life doesn’t really matter in the end.
Can Dr. Young’s own charge be reversed? Is he guilty of teaching an anti-gospel? I think so. Maybe he teaches that people should repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus, but he doesn’t preach that such is necessary in order to be forgiven and receive eternal life.
The true gospel is urgent, because it proclaims that God’s gracious offer of life is found exclusively in Jesus Christ, is received exclusively by faith in Jesus Christ. You need this gospel, and you need it now.
And you may have it, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done. Turn from your sins and place your trust in Jesus Christ, who died for your sins and rose from the dead to bring you life. Accept His mighty hand reaching down to draw you to Himself. Be cleansed, forgiven, made whole, adopted as a child of the Most High.
The time is now.
…a postscript to my ruminations a few days ago on the celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine”, and the song’s message of despair.
In that earlier post, I noted in passing the hypocrisy of super-wealthy celebrities singing a song that contains the line “imagine no possessions”. Upon further reflection, I think that dissonance reflects one of the basic fallacies of the song and its misunderstanding of naturalistic, materialistic ideology.
For the song suggests that embracing a naturalistic and materialistic ideology—rejecting religion, with its metaphysical notions of heaven and hell, of transcendent morality and judgment and eternal hope—thus “living for today”, will help us break down the barriers and “live as one”. This is, ostensibly, the future that those promoting this ideology dream of.
Now, let us assume that the celebrities singing this song hold to such a naturalistic and materialistic ideology—they are atheists, who believe that this world is all we get, and intend to live for today. This may not be true; I’m not very knowledgeable about celebrity news, and for all I know Gal Gadot et al may claim to believe in God; but the public testimony of this song is that they don’t, so let us suppose that to be the case. Ostensibly, they are “living for today”, they dream this dream.
But they are not sharing their possessions. Oh, I don’t doubt they give to charitable causes; but they keep vast amounts of personal wealth for themselves. They make no effort to “live as one” with the people of the world. Apparently “a brotherhood of man” is not their dream, after all?
Why should it be? This is not a simple matter of hypocrisy—singing the song is, but living a lavish lifestyle isn’t. Naturalistic materialism provides no moral impetus. “Living for today” is perfectly consistent with living selfishly. Transcendent morality and eschatological hope, on the other hand provide a profound foundation for charity.
Of course, many Christians fail to live out the faith, sometimes infamously; because our sanctification is incomplete, we are all hypocrites to a greater or lesser extent. Still, we should see clearly, and here is the key difference: selfishness and greed are hypocrisy in Christians, but are perfectly consistent with an atheistic worldview.
Therefore, if in fact selfishness and greed are bad, then atheism is wrong. If there is good, there must be God.
“In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1, NIV)
In grasping a proper concept of reality, the first piece is understanding that God exists. The Bible begins with an account of the creation of the world, but that creation account already presupposes the existence of God. In the beginning, He is already there, and He acts to bring the world into being.
God is, we may say, the necessary presupposition. He is the basis of all else, including our own self-consciousness and the fact that we inhabit a rational universe. To honestly doubt the existence of myself may be insanity, but to doubt the existence of God is nonsense—for that would be doubting the basis for sense at all. God is the presupposition of the ordered and rational world in which we do our thinking.
Contrary to the popular idea that religion is a subjective field of life, one that concerns psychology and morality but not reality, religion is an objective field that concerns reality on the most fundamental level. The Bible begins with being: the God who is, and the universe He creates.
One practical implication of this is that human culture is inescapably religious because a culture must ask—and answer—questions about the nature of reality. And a culture that embraces idols rather than the true and living God embraces wrong ideas about reality, and thus should expect chaos. But a culture (or sub-culture, or counter-culture) that embraces the true and living God has a consistent first foundation on which to build an ordered society—a society that makes accurate judgments about transcendent matters, questions of the true, the beautiful, and the good.
Religion is never purely private, because religion is foundational to understanding the world. And true religion begins with the one true God, who was in the beginning, who acts, who lives eternally, and who reigns over this His world.
You may have heard of Tom Steyer; he’s one of the people vying for the Democratic nomination for president. But, you may not have heard of him; he’s not one of the people likely to get the nomination.
In any case, the liberal Religion News Service did an interview with him to talk about his religious beliefs, and it’s worth taking a glance at, as an example of what might be called contemporary American civil religion.
Apparently Steyer has been vocal about his faith, which may be a piece in that elusive quest for a Democratic candidate who can draw liberal Christians without alienating the substantial secular portion of their base. But what is his faith?
Well, it starts with an Episcopal priest(ess), which is rather foreboding, and goes just where you’d expect it to go. The pope inspired him to seek to “take care of the most vulnerable among us”, but apparently that doesn’t mean opposing abortion, it means climate change activism. He’s rich, but doesn’t plan to stay that way forever. Religion is significantly about being a good person (and the key feature noted about that is environmentalism), and whatever religion gets you there is probably fine.
Steyer has a faith that will float well in American politics. It is ambiguous and inoffensive, environmentally activist and implicitly universalist. But that same ambiguity and inoffensiveness separates it from orthodox Christianity.
For there is no sense, in the faith Steyer expresses, that Jesus is the only way to be right with God and that apart from Him we stand under wrath. There is no sense that we are sinners who need to repent and receive God’s mercy if we are to be saved. God is not described as the Triune Majesty, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but as “a positive life force that you can connect with and that’s bigger than any of us”–a rather panentheistic sort of deity.
Perhaps that last piece is the key takeaway from Tom Steyer’s theology. When you seek an inclusive religion that is open to all kinds of different understandings of God or paths to God, you are naturally led to lose a sense of God as personal. For the one true God does not fit all religions, only the religion that He has revealed. The one-size-fits-all god of contemporary American civil religion ends up being a rather characterless god.
Thankfully, we are not left with such an insipid god. The one true and Triune God is Father, Son, and Spirit. We can know Him, and call Him by name. He offers us life and salvation, forgiveness and transformation. Here is a God we can pray to; here is a God we can worship. Here is God, the only God, worthy of all honor and praise.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
(Isaiah 53:10, NIV)
In this one verse we see the wonderful mystery of the cross expressed. What a marvelous gift that God gave this word to the prophet Isaiah, and how it must have moved and mystified that holy man and so many others, to ponder what all this could mean. Yet in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the mystery is made plain, and we are left with adoration and awe.
The cross was not an accident of history, the tragic death of one more good man at the hands of the wicked. It was the will of God, the divine act of redemption for the lost human race. Here the Son of God suffered for us, perfect obedient Servant, pure Substitute, Holy Savior of mankind.
Christ was made an offering for our sins. By His sacrifice, the wrath of God is satisfied and our guilt is washed away. What we could never accomplish for ourselves, Christ did on our behalf. And for all His wonderful miracles, His greatest act was offering Himself up to make atonement for us.
And yet He lives. He sees offspring–the children of God, who through faith may be saved because of what He has done. His days are prolonged, for He defies death and is raised to life eternal. And He accomplishes the redeeming purpose of God, securing a people for the Lord redeemed and renewed by His blood.
Praise to God for His wonderful work, for the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The phrase of the day comes from Bernard Lonergan’s The Triune God: Systematics, trans. Michael G. Shields (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), page 207:
Once these things have been grasped, the gnoseological foundation of hylomorphism comes to light…
Oh boy, does it ever.