Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What Leads to Divorcing God?

Originally posted July 9, 2012

Our relationship with God is often described (collectively at least) as a marriage. So many seem to enter into that marriage covenant, but end up turning away from the true God in the long run. Why is that?

One of the major reasons I think this is the case is because people often don't "fall in love" with the whole person to whom they are married. Instead, a person will latch on to certain attributes and overemphasize those attributes as encompassing the whole person. Thus, these loveable attributes overshadow other attributes that may be less charming to the specific individual. This is called the halo effect.

We see it when a young girl can't see that the guy she's dating is a complete jerk. That's because there is some charming quality, or qualities, about him that diminish the less than charming attributes and he is perceived just in terms of those charming attributes.

What happens then is that she gets married to the guy. The halo effect slowly disappears, and she ends up seeing all of him. She then thinks, "Who is this? I don't even know this person anymore." Actually, it was that she never knew him in the first place. Her love was never based on knowledge of his whole person, and so her love was never of his whole person, just of an imaginary character that her husband once played in her delusion. She then begins to look for a "better" partner (what this usually means is she looks for someone else with whom she can do the exact same thing), or no partner at all. In other words, she chooses detachment from her covenant promise by divorce/adultery. She chooses either to remain single at that point, perhaps, realizing that the guy she imagined is not out there at all, or she chooses a different guy. The point is that she never knew the person to whom she was married. She never made a commitment to him at all. She merely had a fanciful relationship with a delusion. Her spouse was never loved by her, because he was never really known by her, and once he was known, all of his attributes displayed, he was rejected by her for having said attributes.

This is the same thing that often happens with God. People love someone who loves them. People love someone who is sacrificial, merciful, compassionate, etc. But people do not love someone who demands obedience, is condemning of their wayward beliefs and deeds, and who is exclusive, rejecting those who are not in accord with his standards. Hence, when God is accepted by many individuals today, He is accepted as the "loving and gracious God," which then overshadows His other attributes of holiness and being just. He hates sin and is wrathful toward those who practice it without the fear of retribution. But all of this is not usually seen by so many. When they finally come into contact with all of who God is, they are appalled, as our rebellious and corrupt minds and hearts hate authority and a holiness that places us in a less than positive light.

When one of these individuals comes into contact with all of who God is, they want a divorce. They may become atheists, or they go off to some other religion that is "less judgmental," which is connected to the idea of God's holiness and justice, or they may simply still attend a fellowship and call themselves "Christians," but simply reject the God of the whole Bible for the God of half the Bible.

This last group is sort of like the woman who never finds out who her husband is, and instead, desires to live in a delusion. She, in all reality, hates her husband and loves someone else who is not her husband. She just thinks of her husband as that someone else.

Churches have helped in this delusion, as many pastors are equally deluded. They have a half-revealed God, because half truths allow us to distort the truth via willful ignorance. A half truth is a lie, not because it is not true in context of other truths, but because it lacks those other truths to clarify and define the whole truth. It's like saying, "If you jump out of a plane, you'll be fine," and leave out the part where such is only true in the context of one wearing a parachute. Half truths are false truths (if I can put it that way). Likewise, loving half the character of a person is not loving the person at all, as in reality, the truth of who that person really is is not known, and in fact, he would be hated if he was fully known. That person has been rejected for another within the imagination of his spouse.

This is why Jonathan Edwards once argued that one can only finally come to know that he is a Christian who has fully embraced God when he loves God's holiness as much as His other attributes. By nature, we are children of wrath, but we want to see ourselves as good and saved. God's holiness tells us otherwise, so it is something we hate. We hate God's condemning of sins of which we approve. We hate God's wrath upon the Canaanites for their sins when their sins look a lot like ours. We hate God's wrath upon sinners in hell when those sinners look a lot like us as well. We hate God's holiness because it demands of us that we must be holy as well, and we don't want a Holy God, just a gracious God who overlooks sin.

But the Christian has been transformed by God's love to see all of God as good and loveable. He is given a new heart to love what is good despite himself. He understands the gospel fully, rather than only partially, because he understands the holiness of God and what it demanded of us. And, through trial and tribulation, he seeks to become what he loves. The real Christian never divorces God, because he fell in love with all of who God is, not just a god who was glued together from different parts of the Bible outside of their context of His whole character revealed upon all of its pages.

The truth is, we have a lot of "Christians" who divorced God a long time ago. We also have a lot of atheists and other religious adherents who were supposedly once married to God as well. But the point I'm making here is that none of these people were ever married to Him, because they never knew Him, nor were they known by Him. They were always lovers of another god. Such a thing always leads to divorce in one way or another, and so it does with God as well.

For this is a rebellious people, false sons,  Sons who refuse to listen  To the instruction of the Lord; Who say to the seers, "You must not see [visions]";  And to the prophets, "You must not prophesy to us what is right,  Speak to us pleasant words,  Prophesy illusions. "Get out of the way, turn aside from the path,  Let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel." (Isa 30:9-11)

"For your  husband  is your Maker, Whose name is the Lord of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth. (Isa 54:5)

God says, "If a  husband  divorces his wife  And she goes from him  And belongs to another man, Will he still return to her? Will not that land be completely polluted?  But you are a harlot [with] many lovers;  Yet you turn to Me," declares the Lord. (Jer 3:1)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Human Faces of Polemics: What Thom Stark's Book Reveals When It Gets Scholarly Methodology Wrong (And Why Liberal Scholarship Tries to Hide It)

This is a short critique of Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) published by Wipf & Stock.

Apart from noting the incredibly arrogant title, the idea that "inerrancy" tries to hide something, rather than "inerrantists," may sound less confrontational, but is extremely nonsensical nonetheless. Ideas don't try to hide things. People do. But, in good humor, I've done the same above to mimic this. Now on to a more serious critique. 

 Stark's main argument, that the Bible is full of contradictory theological teachings (and therefore, sometimes "gets God wrong," is supported by a host of misinterpretations garnered from Stark’s ignorance of the historical, social, and literary context of the passages he cites. This leads him into a host of logical, factual, and linguistic errors in his overly-sensationalized attempt to show the Bible to be riddled with theological error.
1.       Stark argues that the Bible contradicts itself in terms of whether God judges children for the sins of their parents. He fails to note in the passages he cites, however, the very nuanced approach the Bible takes toward such an idea.
a.       The Bible never teaches the idea that children in the household are separate individuals from their parents. Hence, to punish a man is to punish all of his possessions, which includes all of the people (e.g., children) of a household. This is clear from the passages that Stark mentions concerning children being punished with their parents.
b.      The claim that God does not judge the sons for the sins or righteousness of the fathers is referring to sons who are no longer of the household and have made individual choices as independent entities. This is made clear by the description of what the sons might do in passages such as Ezekiel 18 (i.e., murder, commit adultery with another man’s wife, etc.). This is hardly referring to little children, and indeed, refers to an individual who has parted ways with the ways of his father.
c.       That God visits the judgment of fathers upon their sons, even to the third and fourth generation, refers to those who continue to hate God (i.e., those who do not part from the ways of the father but instead continue in their father’s rebellion, thus receiving the wrath of God, which the Bible pictures as something that is cumulative when sons do not depart from the wicked ways of their fathers.
d.      One may not like this idea, but this hardly shows the Bible to contradict itself. Instead, the contradiction is between our contemporary culture, its modern sensibilities, and the Bible; but this is hardly what Stark intends to show. Hence, his argument fails here.
2.       Stark attempts to argue that some passages argue in favor of “xenophobic” behavior, whereas others argue for more open relations with people of other nations.
a.       What Stark calls “xenophobia” is a religious concern in the passages he cites, not an ethnic one. In fact, in the same books that make such claims against taking women who worship other gods are indications that such is merely religious in nature (e.g., The Book of Numbers, which presents Moses as taking an Ethiopian woman for a wife, after having been married to a Midianite woman, and yet, presents marrying Midianite women as evil. There are nuances in the text that Stark’s approach simply misses, intentionally so, in order to make his argument. Another example might be the fact that Malachi is in the context of Ezra-Nehemiah, and vice versa. The problem is clearly marrying the daughters of foreign gods, not ethnicity. (See also the Deuteronomic passages that both forbid marriage with pagans under condemnation for idolatry and permit marriage with foreign women who are not.)
b.      Stark here, of course, commits an egregious fallacy in his argument; and as it pervades his entire discourse, we will see it time and time again. This fallacy is a linguistic one and a bit of sleight of hand by Stark, one which I am sure he does not realize he is making. This, of course, is that his argument is intending to show that the Bible contradicts itself; but he does this by critiquing individual passages that are not the Bible. Let me explain. The Bible is the entire entity of what orthodox Christians believe is the Word of God. This is what Stark is attempting to pull apart as errant. However, in order to do so, Stark must make the Bible into individual pieces that are no longer the Bible, but passages ripped out of that context and placed within alternate contexts in order to say something different than what they say in the context of the Bible as a whole. The problem is that orthodox Christians don’t believe these individual passages communicate what the Bible says as a whole. They merely contribute to the larger picture of what the whole Bible says. Hence, it is much like hearing a point made by a speaker and ignoring any qualifications and nuances that speaker makes to clarify his point. One could then take the whole discourse of that speaker and turn it against itself by ignoring these nuances, taking them out separately from one another, and then pitting them against one another, as though the speaker had contradicted himself, rather than clarified his statements with nuanced qualifications. It’s really a major fallacy of communication that refuses to participate in the communicative process with the speaker simply because one either doesn’t have the linguistic and logical ability to take things in context, or because one merely wants to prove that the speaker should not be trusted. I’m afraid Stark’s book seems to be a bit of both. If Stark wants to make his case against the Bible of evangelicals (his foil), he’s going to have to engage with their concept of the Bible, not a linguistically fallacious hybrid that seems to make up his own. Unfortunately, Stark not only does this with the Bible as a whole, but also with individual texts, as we will see.
3.       Stark attempts to argue that the Bible teaches child sacrifice. This is accomplished by taking a text out of its current context and speculating as to what the history of a word, phrase, or sentence may have been in an ancient Canaanite/Paleo-Israelite context.
a.       The problem, of course, is that this commits the fallacy above. All scholars agree that when one takes these passages in their literary biblical contexts, they do not teach child sacrifice, but rather child dedication. This etymological fallacy is well known by most scholars, and yet, such a diachronic methodology to answer a question that only a synchronic investigation can answer is absolutely needed if one is to buy into Stark’s argument here. For those of us who are linguistically trained, we’ll keep our money in our pockets.
b.      Not only is the methodology of concern, but the speculative nature of such reconstructions assumes a knowledge of the original authors of such an idea that we simply do not have. Yet, again, one absolutely needs to confirm such knowledge in order to make the claim that the original author intended to convey such and such an idea. No such confirmation is, or can be, made by those scholars who peddle this idea, as the original context (if there really was one) is lost and cannot confirm such an interpretation (and, as said before, all admit that the idea has been radically transformed in the biblical texts, so that the “Bible” of orthodox Christians does not actually teach such an idea at all).
4.       Stark also argues along the same lines that the Bible teaches polytheism as well as henotheism and monotheism.
a.       The same etymological fallacy can be pinned on this wildly popular idea. This, again, ignores that a phrase may or may not carry its implicatures depending upon whether the context repeats the contextual referents of the original context. In other words, as I’ve argued before, an implicature does not carry in a foreign context, and it certainly cannot be assumed in a context where the implicature is often contradicted, such as the idea of polytheism in the religious context of ancient Israel, and especially, within the literary context of the Bible. Instead, words and phrases that once carried a particular implicature in a foreign context often become figurative expressions that convey a specific meaning that no longer carries the implicature. For instance, the phrase, “Aphrodite is the goddess of love” in an ancient Graeco-Roman polytheistic context implies that “goddesses [literally] exist.” However, change the context to a non-polytheistic one, and a phrase such as, “Tyra is the goddess of fashion,” does not carry the implicature that goddesses exist in a literal sense at all, but rather that, in a figurative/analogical sense only, Tyra is the highest of all other fashionistas. The implicature has been lost in a monotheistic/agnostic/atheistic context.                               
Stark, as well as others who advocate this position (Mark Smith being the most prominent), fails to note this, and by doing so, begs the question as to whether a text conveys polytheism.
b.      He further commits the same fallacy along these same lines by failing to note that in its biblical context (whether within that of a book or section of books, such as Deuteronomy or the Deuteronomistic History) polytheistic phrases exist inside the context of monotheistic theology, and hence, do not carry their implicatures. Hence, his argument, yet again, has him arguing for the errancy of a fictitious Bible of his own making, not the one in which orthodox Christians believe. If Stark were to have entitled his book, “Why My Reconstructed and Dissected Bible Is Errant” one would have no problem with agreeing with him. However, Stark’s Bible is clearly meant to be conflated with the Bible in which the average evangelical believes, which makes the argument a bit of a bait and switch.
5.       Finally, in an effort to try and catch evangelicals in a pickle, Stark argues that if inerrancy is true then Jesus was errant because He predicted that the end of the world would occur within the lifetime of the apostles, and it didn’t.
a.       Of course, Jesus could have been wrong about the time of His coming, since immediately after He states this, He states that He doesn’t actually know when the time of the end will occur. In fact, this should be the first clue that there are two different things going on here, since He states with great certainty what time frame the event He is addressing will occur, and then continues to say that He has no knowledge of when it will occur.
b.      Stark seems to be unaware of the more likely interpretation of this passage, which is the partial-Preterist view that Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in this context. Along with it, as apocalypticism almost always does, is a description of the micro-event as though it was the macro-event of the end. Again, it is likely this distinction that Christ has in mind by saying that He both knows when it (i.e., the destruction of the temple/Jerusalem) will occur and does not know when it (i.e., the end of the world/the Second Coming) will occur. This would take more than a paragraph to demonstrate, but Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic texts often mesh a micro-event with the macro-events (i.e., either the commencement of the creation of the world or the consummation of that creation) as though they were one single event. That John Collins, a Second Temple scholar, endorsed and wrote the foreword to the book   is all the more surprising, but apparently liberal apologetics wins out over genuine scholarship when evangelicals are the target. We see this often with the nonsense over at Peter Enns’s blog (another liberal Second Temple commentator that Stark thanks in his preface).
6.       There is, of course, an epistemological naïveté in the book. Stark seems to think that one does not need an inerrant source of truth in order to know truth, and this is simply rubbish to anyone who has studied the issue. If a finite being with finite knowledge does not have an inerrant source of truth that stems from a transcendent infinite being then one cannot know anything. He can only guess at everything in the dark without any knowledge of whether he is moving closer or further away from the truth and the good. What Stark is essentially arguing for, as most liberals do, is for an intuitive inerrant source, where one patches into the divine truth from one’s own nature. Much theology can be added to this ad hoc, such as the Holy Spirit guides humans into truth and whatnot, but the question will always be how one knows any of this. If liberals want to argue that they believe in their intuition in the same way that orthodox Christians believe in the Bible, that’s fine with me. I agree that they do. The problem is simply that this is not a version of Christianity. It is simply one more expression of the anti-Logos, in replace of the one who is Christ Himself revealed in words, and a completely different religion than that of orthodox Christianity which is an externally-oriented, revealed religion and not an internally-oriented revealed one, as all pagan religions and non-religions are. With liberalism, Stark carries in a host of presuppositions (not merely bias--note the difference please) concerning the nature of God, man, the Bible, etc. that cannot be critically evaluated without first assuming a different set of presuppositions by which to measure them. Hence, we are left with faith, not scholarship, and this is merely one faith telling another faith that it is wrong. But, again, this was not the claim made in the book. Stark did not set out to counter orthodox Christianity with his alternate religion, at least that is not what he claimed to be doing. Instead, if he wanted to reach the goal of his argument, he needed to accept the Bible that orthodox Christians have accepted, and show that their beliefs concerning it are internally invalid. He could not do that. Hence, we got the argument he gave, and not the one that we needed in order to see his position as a valid one.

There is a lot more I could say about his other minor arguments that also have to do with particular interpretations of passages, but I think the above should suffice in showing that this book was received well by the liberal community of scholars either because (1) they’re so bent on undermining traditions and traditional Christianity that they don’t mind supporting an M.A.R. student who is willing to use any bad argument possible to undermine it, or (2) that they simply make the same mistakes daily in their classrooms and works that they think that Stark’s scholarship is sound. I’m going to be generous and say that it’s likely a mixture of both. In either case, however, the substandard state of scholarship in terms of being critical of its own methodologies is put on display for all eyes to see if one is so inclined to see it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Begotten or Made?

The boys over at Mere Fidelity had a nice little conversation about the book Begotten or Made? by Oliver O'Donovan, a book that discusses all sorts of issues about procreation, what makes a human, abortion, artificial insemination, adoption, etc. If you get a chance, check it out.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Time In Between

Much is made that almost 2,000 years has passed since Christ died, rose, and said He would return. In Preterist thought, the interval of 40 years seems more palatable than one which is of such a great length. Hence, the millennium, i.e., the time in between, is interpreted to be a figurative number representing that 40 years.

It should be noted that the thousand year period in Revelation is, in fact, a figurative number. John adds chiliads to various representative numbers to display the vastness of the number. Hence, the 12 tribes of Israel, each described with the number 1,000, multiplied by the 12 apostles who sit as judges to guide Israel are said to be 144,000 (i.e., a number that represents the church).

The idea here is not that the church is made up of only 144,000 people, nor is it to convey the idea that there are literally 144,000 virgin Jewish men from each tribe that will become Christians, but rather it exists to communicate the idea that the number that belong to Christ, the size of His Church, is vast. The idea is that there are so many that they can be simply represented by a sizable number like 1,000. In other words, the number is figurative and represents another number, but the the number it represents is vastly larger than the literal number itself. It is never used in Revelation of a number that is lower than itself--indeed, such a use would negate the very purpose of the number.

Hence, it cannot be that the number represents 40 years, and indeed, makes more sense that it represents 2,000 or more years instead.

But something else is interesting about which I don't hear a lot of discussion, and that is that the work of Christ is pictured in the Bible, and in early Christianity, as framed by the festivals, especially in terms of the Spring Feasts and the Fall Feasts with an interval period in between that is characterized by harvesting. Christ fulfills, not just certain festivals, but all of them. Hence, His ministry looks more like the following.

Spring Feasts

Christ's Death (historia salutis) - Passover

Christ in the Grave - Feast of Unleavened Bread (Removing the Leaven from Bread [i.e., removing sin among His people].

Christ's Resurrection - First Fruits  (Christ's resurrection is referred to as this in some passages: 1 Cor 15:20, 23;

Pentecost (The Feast of Weeks) - The Holy Spirit Is Given as a Promise of Our Full Future Redemption (This is the day we are in).

The intermediate period between the feasts is harvest time, a time of ingathering. This is likely the time that represents the ingathering of the Gentiles as Christ's.

Fall Feasts

Proclamation of Victory in the Return of Christ - The Feast of Trumpets

The Full Application of the Redemption Christ has done on the Cross (ordo salutis) - The Day of Atonement (the day where cleansing takes place by applying the blood of the sacrifice to both the people and the tabernacle/temple, which represents all of creation in ANE and biblical society).

The Consummation of the New World at the Wedding Feast - Feast of Tabernacles (a gathering in of the year's final harvest and the remembrance of when we were in the wilderness)

Now, of course, one might take issue with the way these are used here, as the purpose of the feasts in relation to what Christ did are not that explicitly clear, but I do think it is interesting that ingathering of the harvest of Israel's various crops begins around the time of the first feast and ends at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. If we do make a correspondence here, we might ask why we would consider the current time in which we are living as the consummation of the new world after the Feast of Tabernacles has taken place, rather than the intermediate period where the harvest is still being gathered in, a harvest said not to be completed until Christ returns to gather His elect from the four corners of heaven and earth.

This is really more of a "think about this" argument than it is some knock-down argument, but I do find it interesting at least to think about in terms of how long the millennium might be. If it is characterized by Christ gathering in His elect, then it could actually continue for some time, especially when we take note of the previous idea that the number 1,000 represents a larger amount of X than the literal number represents, not a lower amount of X than the literal number represents.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Bible Interprets the Bible?

There are certain phrases that are meant to put us at ease by some Bible teachers, and disarm us from being too critical of a particular interpretation in terms of how faithful it is. Some phrases exist to sneak in ideas that ultimately reject the teaching of the Bible while at the same time explicitly affirming a faithfulness to what the Bible teaches. Let's talk about one of these today.

The phrase, "the Bible interprets the Bible" is something I hear quite a bit these days, and like most bumper sticker theology, it's an idea that is widely misunderstood. What most people think this means is that we just harmonize all texts together, as though the entire Bible is the context for a particular word or phrase. But that, in my estimation, skips a vital step in being linguistically responsible with language and letting context speak for itself.

The canon certainly is the context of the books therein, but the immediate contexts have to be considered first and then branched out from there. Otherwise, one can, and often does, replace the actual context of something that is said with a foreign context, making it say something completely different than what was intended by the individual author of that particular book in the Bible.

Context is king when understood to grow out from the smaller contexts to the larger. So, for instance, I understand that John uses the word pneuma in John 3:8 in two different ways, precisely, because I start at the micro-context before placing it within its macro-context of the entire canon, or even the Gospel of John as a whole. At the clausal and paragraph level, I can see that one use of pneuma refers to the Spirit of God/Holy Spirit, and the other refers to the wind. The other words that form its context in the sentence (e.g., blows, hear the sound, where it comes from, where it goes, etc.) informs the reader that literal wind is in view. But the larger subject at the paragraph level informs the reader that the other use of pneuma here speaks of the Holy Spirit who causes a spiritual rebirth by which men who are now born of Him speak and conduct their lives.

Indeed, this then connects to the larger theology of John in his Gospel that teaches us about the necessity of the regeneration of the Spirit and that such cannot be seen physically, since true worshipers are those who worship God through the Spirit and truth, rather than through their physical ethnicity.

We can then apply this teaching to the larger teaching concerning the Holy Spirit and regeneration throughout the Bible as its larger context that shows us the Word and witness of those born of Him.

But what if I looked at all of the texts that deal with wind in the Bible and concluded that these must be the immediate context for the word pneuma? I would see that the word is often used for the wind of God that looks much like a storm. I would have to conclude that this refers to a storm, and that this is really talking about being born from the storms of life, which are trials. Now I just turned what was a theology of unconditional election and the regenerating (monergistic) work of the Holy Spirit into a works-based reward system for those who persevere through trials in life and yet still obey God.

This is what happens when one ignores how language works. The "Bible interprets the Bible" credo does not mean one rips two passages out of context, strings them together to provide a totally new context for each, and suddenly we get what God meant by all of it. What it does mean is that we interpret each text within its own context, then look at the larger section of the book, then the larger book, then the group of books by that author, then other books of that genre, then section of the canon, then the canon, all passages being taken within their own contexts first and then brought together to complement and often restrict our thinking concerning the subject matter.

That takes language seriously, and we ought to take it seriously because God used it to communicate to us His truth.

You can do this with anything, and people often do. Cults do this all the time. Try and get a JW to stay on one passage at a time. Good luck. If he does that, he loses the debate. By ignoring the immediate context one can make a passage say anything by using other Bible verses as their context, and so cults love doing this because they can support whatever heretical theology they desire by such a faulty methodology. Liberals go the other way and never bring the actual teachings of the passages and books together--this largely due to their presuppositions concerning what the Bible is as a human book about God rather than a divine book written through humans. But this does not justify a sloppy reading where we mesh everything together while ignoring the actual context in which it is said.

Try this with the word "world" in John's writings. By the end of it, one will have God loving the wicked practices and thinking that is hostile to Him. Try it with the word "flesh" in Paul's writings. By the end of that reading, one will have to conclude that Paul lives in the flesh by faith in the Son of God, which he tells us that those who live in the flesh must die and do not know Christ.

Absurdities are multiplied when we ignore how language works. In fact, I would change the phrase completely. The Bible does not interpret the Bible. An interpreter interprets the Bible using either a good or bad methodology of understanding the language used in context, along with understanding what contexts need to be considered primary. But the Bible does not interpret individual passages or books for us. The Bible teaches us the whole counsel of God on a subject and it does so by teaching us individual elements of that subject in every context first. It teaches us a larger theology and ethic through the books that then can be put together in a display of the continuity it has with itself. But one part of the Bible does not interpret another part. The immediate context of the passage and book provides what is needed for interpretation. The Bible supplies the missing elements of the whole counsel of God that an individual passage or book does not possess within itself, and so must be joined to the rest in order to fill out the bigger picture.

So no more of this sloppy prooftexting, where one runs around the Bible when a context doesn't provide the interpretation he wants. It is simply another way of rejecting the Bible, even while explicitly affirming one's faith in it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Is Preterism Heresy?

There are many ways to answer that question: biblically, theologically, historically, and socially. I'll attempt to come at it at every angle mentioned above in reverse order.

1. Socially we must speak of "heresy" as division, since that is really from whence the term comes. Preterism certainly has caused major divisions in its aggressiveness to undermine all other eschatological systems. In this way, it seems as though it cannot tolerate other systems well, and indeed, must continually assert itself over more important matters of faith. Indeed, it seems to become a core doctrine of the faith for many Preterists as it consumes much of their time and energy. Often, Preterists would rather end whole churches than cease and desist from making it an issue. For this reason, it can be a social heresy (but, of course, many things can be in this sense).

2. Historically, all eschatological positions are in line with what Christians have declared in the creeds. All except one that is: Preterism. Because of its denial of the Second Coming of Christ in the flesh, the bodily resurrection (i.e., that this earthly body will be redeemed and transformed), the future judgment, etc., it sets itself up against the creeds and what "all Christians everywhere" have believed within the historic orthodox Christian Church. It flies in the face, in fact, of the early Apostle's Creed upon which almost all subsequent creeds are based. For this reason, it is a historical heresy.

3. Theologically, Preterism undermines core doctrines of the Christian faith that have to do with the nature of man and sometimes even that of Christ. It must posit the gnostic idea that man is merely a spirit clothed in flesh rather than an inspirited physical creature made up of body and spirit intermingled. This distorts all humans, what is saved by Christ, and Christ's nature as well, since Christ's body would merely be a shell as well, and not make up a major element of who He is (i.e., a denial of His human nature in terms of what makes up the human nature). It also denies what the gospel accomplishes (what Christ gains for Himself is gained for us, but what is not gained for Himself cannot be obtained by us, i.e., a different body or a state of existence as spirits). There is simply a profound misunderstanding of the gospel in Preterism. One might say that Preterism only denies these by a logical entailment that is only sometimes, but not always, pursued to the fullest by Preterists; but this would merely be walking the line much like other heretical views that are rejected by the church more for what they imply than what is explicitly affirmed. For this reason, Preterism is a theological heresy.

Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, we come to whether it is a biblical heresy. Apart from what can be inferred from above, there are two key passages that may help us answer this question.

The first is a commonly discussed passage by both sides:

2 Timothy 2:16-19:

But stand clear of godless foolish talk, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, [men] who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows those who are His," and, "Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness."

Some observations here:

a. Paul calls this ungodly and cancer.
b. He states that those who teach this have gone astray from the truth.
c. He seems to suggest that those who teach this do not belong to God in contrast to those who are known by the Lord.

Now, what is this teaching that states the resurrection had already occurred?

Preterists like to argue that this proves that the resurrection must have been seen as a spiritual event, since the heretics are able to argue this way and convince people that it had already taken place.
Whereas this is an interesting deflection, what seems to escape their notice is that the more likely interpretation in a proto-gnostic context is that these heretics were spiritualizing the physical resurrection and arguing that it had already taken place. This follows the pattern of those who deny that Jesus is coming in the flesh, which brings me to the other passage that is not so well discussed.

2 John 1:7:

Many translations simply get this text wrong, and thus, it is widely unknown to most Preterists. The assumption seems to be that John is talking about the same thing he was talking about in 1 John, i.e., that Jesus had come in the flesh (i.e., physically as opposed to spiritually in the way the Docetic Gnostics argued).
However, one must remember that these letters don't provide the context for one another, as they are different written works. They may provide some context to the author's overall thinking, but they need to be read as distinct works first.
This brings us to an important point. In 1 John, John uses the Perfect or Aorist to refer to Christ's incarnation and earthly ministry, never the Present.
In this verse, however, John uses the Present Participle ἐρχόμενον. In a colossal mistake, most translations translate them the same, likely due to confusing the phrase with the Perfect Participle in 1 John 4:2 and 5:6, but in fact, they are not the same. The Present Participle is used to refer to Christ's Coming in the Synoptics, i.e., "is coming" (Matt 16:28; 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27).
Hence, in the Greek, the text reads:

  For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ is coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward.  Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into [your] house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.

Notice, the one who denies that Christ is coming in the flesh is a deceiver and antichrist, one who will not receive a full reward, and who does not have God. He is not to be received into the church or even greeted. So whatever this is, it is an example of heresy, and it has to do with not confessing that Jesus Christ is coming in the flesh.

To bring back a statement from 1 John, "when He appears we will be like Him," Christ must actually appear (a word that describes one making oneself physically visible) in order for us to be made like Him (and as I argued before, this refers to our physical bodies).

Hence, it is probable that John is saying that a failure to confess that Jesus is coming in the flesh/physically, and to argue that He returns spiritually in some way, not merely in micro-events that foreshadow the macro, but as the only macro event itself, is to be of the deceiver and antichrist (i.e., replacing Christ and His work with another christ and another work). For this reason, Preterism is a biblical heresy.

The issue at this point becomes one where we discuss how we deal with individuals who have fallen into this, or any, heresy in love. A thorough effort to teach the teachable should be made with blood, sweat, and tears. Lots of prayer for the individuals and lots of conversations to make sure that they are not simply deceived sheep who need to be led to less polluted waters. Love for God, the purity of His flock, and then the individuals who have gone astray should  be our motivating influence in that order.

The charge of heresy also should not replace a thoughtful dialogue in seeking this reconciliation, as many have sought to use it as an ad hominem rather than engage in serious conversation.

However, once it is evident that they are dug in and not going to be teachable anymore, it is then that John's instruction becomes relevant, and we, sadly, must move on from them and withdraw the hand of fellowship, as the Apostle commands.