Weak Pneumatology

3 September 2019

I had occasion recently to reflect on the pneumatology of my (Bible church movement) tradition. It’s mostly correct, on paper. But it’s also really weak.

On this, three points (the first mostly a prolegomenon, but necessary for this discussion.) First: Theology can be correct but weak, because theology is not simply something one teaches; it is something one attains. Having your theological paperwork in order doesn’t matter if you don’t actually do it. It is no defense for a serially philandering pastor to hide behind his correct teaching on the sanctity of marriage. If he doesn’t live up to his talk, then he has attained only a weak theology of marriage.

Second: Much of what the Scofield-Chafer-DTS tradition has developed on the Holy Spirit is true, but the community does not allow it to be applied. As a practical example, that tradition very carefully articulates a doctrine of illumination (per Ryrie, “The ministry of the Holy Spirit helping the believer to understand and apply the truth of the Bible,”) and everyone is required to agree in general that such a thing happens. However, nobody is permitted to claim that it has happened in a specific case. You can test this in your own church, although I make no promise that it is safe to try: tell them that last night God showed you what a passage of Scripture means, and see what happens.
Of course nobody should swallow such a claim whole; when someone says that to me, I want to hear what the person thinks God showed them, and I want to weight the exegetical evidence, pro and con. But healthy skepticism is not the reaction a claim of illumination gets in this community. Far more often than not, what happens is incredulous scoffing — because we don’t actually believe in illumination, no matter what we say.

Third: Although we tout “personal relationship with God” and we claim to believe that the Spirit makes that possible, we shy away from anything “subjective” or “mystical.” But while good relationships have an objective basis, an enormous amount of what happens in the day-to-day conduct of any real relationship is subjective. This goes double when the relationship is with an incorporeal Spirit. As a result of our fear of “subjectivism” or “mysticism,” we are unable to actually live in relationship with the Spirit. The realities described by John 17:3, Galatians 2:20 or 5:16, or Romans 8:11 are not meant to be “objectively” certified, but subjectively lived. If we are afraid of the subjective, we are afraid of relationship, and if we are afraid of relationship, we will neither have relationship with God nor talk about it well.

In sum: Our pneumatology is weak because it espouses realities in theory that it will not permit anyone to actually apply, and because it stops short of dealing with realities that are the very core of the biblical picture of the Christian life.

We really need to fix that.

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Kissing Joshua Harris Goodbye…Temporarily

6 August 2019

So, a propos of last month’s post on the pursuit of purity and its attendant hazards, Josh Harris–having first kissed dating goodbye–has now also kissed his marriage goodbye, followed by his Christianity. I wasn’t going to comment on all that, but then homeschool maven Michael Farris decided to do a dumb about it, and I’m not letting this one pass without comment.

Farris’ open letter, appearing as an op/ed column and posted on social media, is worth reading, if only as a bad example. Click the link and read it. Seriously. I’ll wait. It’ll take you less than 5 minutes.

Read it? Good. Let’s talk, because this is a study in what not to do, on a whole bunch of levels. First of all, remember, this kid grew up under Farris’ wing. Michael Farris knew Joshua, by his own admission considered him a friend and a brother. If it’s true that the kid was just running a set of formulas, and it was never any deeper than that, where was Farris’ head at, that he didn’t notice *then*?

I’ll tell you where: building a movement, pushing an agenda. Selling his own set of formulas. Farris says — now — that the courtship agenda they pushed together was never a formula, never a recipe for a happy marriage. I call bullshit, and he must think we all have really short memories. I was there, and that’s *exactly* the way it was promoted. We were all promised blissful marriages and great sex lives if only we avoided this and that before marriage. (And yeah, that was totally a lie, but that’s a post for another day.)

If Josh Harris is in trouble today — and he is — it’s in large part because he was made a willing tool of the adults around him, promoted to prominence far beyond what his maturity warranted, and used up. The Bible tells us not to promote neophytes to leadership—did we listen? No. Michael Farris least of all. When Josh was forced later in life to come to terms with the damage that he’d been complicit in doing, he seemed initially to be handling it fairly well. Now, though, he’s hit a serious crisis of faith, and he’s not handling it well. That’s on him.

But the fact that he got there to start with, that’s on us. Yes, us — the adults like Michael Farris who promoted a kid as a celebrity, the publishers who profited from it, and us, the ones who went to the conferences and bought the books and supported the celebrity culture that created this mess. Wasn’t for us, Christian celebrity culture wouldn’t be a thing, and Josh Harris would just be another person who had some pretty naive ideas about love and marriage when he was 21 years old. Didn’t we all?

If Joshua Harris ever believed in Jesus—and we have good reason to think he did—then he came into possession of eternal life at that moment. And eternal life is…what’s the word I’m looking for here…oh yeah. ETERNAL!!! As in, lasting forever. He has passed from death to life, and that’s a one-way street.

He can decide to take a nap on a slab in the morgue, but that doesn’t make him dead any more than sleeping in a garage would make him a car. It’s not healthy. It’s not good. And if he ends this life in that condition, he’ll enter heaven reeking of wood, hay, and stubble, saved yet so at through fire—but saved nonetheless.

But I’m praying for better. Josh Harris was honest enough to face the damage he did early in life. He was honest enough to recognize that some of the views he was coming to did not line up well with his Christianity. I’m praying he’ll stay true to that honesty and eventually come out with a clear head. He’ll look around at the husks the pigs are eating and long for home—and when that happens, his Father will run to meet him.

God has not given up on Joshua Harris. Michael Farris clearly has. You decide who you’d rather follow.


Past its Shelf Life

2 July 2019

The other day I encountered a gent who claimed, baldly and without qualification, that his preferred theological system is true. My initial response was that he might as well claim his theological system is purple. In other word, it’s a category error; theological systems can’t be true, any more than Calvinism can be mauve.

Upon reflection, that’s not quite fair; it is possible in principle for a comprehensive theological system to contain only true propositions, rightly arranged with respect to one another. But if such a system exists, it exists only in the mind of God Himself; certainly it was never inscripturated, and what human being could claim to have discovered it for himself?

So as a practical matter, no theological system is true. All of them are wrong in various places, and so all of them are at best approximations of the truth. In the same way that all the analogies for the Trinity turn into heresy, if pressed far enough, all theological systems eventually diverge from spiritual reality. As the system develops, various speculations and distortions creep in, and those inevitable distortions take on a life of their own.

I suggest that throughout Church history, the actual function of a theological system is to be a delivery vehicle for a few key truths. That’s the actual, lasting impact. Of necessity, the system will do a lot of speculating beyond that basic payload. If the people teaching the system are actually living the truths they preach, the thing will take longer to go to seed, but at some point, the system will outlive its usefulness. At that point, it’s time to collect the basic payload of the system–the core truths that the rest of the system was really just a delivery vehicle for–and run.

So it is that there are a lot of folks who believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, but aren’t Reformed; who believe in the possibility of real relationship with God, but aren’t Palamite; who believe in the value of an all-embracing Christian worldview, but aren’t Reconstructionist. This dynamic isn’t actually all that uncommon.

And so I want to make a proposal about dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism was an important development in the history of doctrine that reminded the Church of some crucial things it had forgotten (e.g. the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of prophecy, the distinction between Israel and the Church). That said, like all theological systems, it has a shelf life. Outside the Bible Church/DTS tradition, it’s already dead; within that tradition, the term is so broad that it’s virtually meaningless without attaching additional adjectives (progressive, classical, Pauline, etc.) That is a sign that we’ve entered the post-paradigm period for sure.

So it’s time to disentangle the payload from the delivery vehicle. Not everyone who believes in the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of biblical prophecy, or a distinction between Israel and the Church is a dispensationalist.

They don’t have to be.


Complex Mechanisms and Simple Interventions

31 May 2019

Every system of the body is incredibly complex. The deeper we look, the more we find. For example, take the circulatory system. It took us a long time to figure out that blood wasn’t just sitting there in vessels; it circulates. Then it took us a long time again to discover that the veins only return 90% of the fluid that goes out in the arteries. The other 10% returns through the lymphatic vessels, which we didn’t even know existed until about 100 years ago, and which serve a whole series of important immune functions. We’re still learning. We didn’t even know there was a connection between the brain and the lymphatic vessels until 2015, and we still haven’t mapped it all. Likewise, it took us a long time to work out the physiological complexities of blood clotting, and so on.

But God is kind to us, and we didn’t even have to know platelets existed, still less how they worked, to know that direct pressure on a small cut was the appropriate therapeutic intervention. If it’s a bigger hole, you might need to resort to pressure points and sutures — and again, we knew how to do that long before we knew how clotting actually worked.  Of course, some cases are orders of magnitude more complicated than a simple cut, and in those situations, you want a medically educated specialist. But those cases are a tiny minority; most people go their whole lives never needing any more wound-care intervention than direct pressure and a band-aid, maybe the occasional occasional staple or stitch.

I expect to find that the human energy system is as complex as any other system; the more we look, the more we’ll find. So far, Randolph Stone’s characterization of how different parts of the energy system interact seems most likely to me. Perhaps he’s wrong about some, or even most, of the particulars, but in any case, something similar seems to be true.

(And then, of course, it may turn out that energetic medicine is presently in its late Ptolemaic phase, the endless shells, vortices, meridians, and interconnections all reminiscent of spheres and epicycles. Perhaps the whole shebang will yield to a small, elegant set of principles after all. That doesn’t seem to be the pattern with living systems, but who knows? Maybe we’re just waiting for the next Copernicus.)

Regardless of the structural complexities and their ramifications for more complex clinical practice, I am finding that the vast majority of problems I run into in the human energy field can be addressed with a small number of fairly simple interventions. I would not be surprised to see that trend continue.

And if it does, I’d like to see some form of energetic first aid become very common knowledge. Something you would grow up knowing, just like you learn to put direct pressure on a small cut.

 


Biblical Voices: the Sage

30 May 2019

The Bible is a book of specific, verbal revelation. In it, God speaks. You would expect such a book to lead off its proclamations with phrases like “Thus saith the Lord…,” and in many places it does.

However, not in all.

In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular, we find a different voice coming to the fore. It’s not the voice of a prophet or a priest, delivering a word directly from God. It’s the voice of the sage, the wise man observing the world. Where the prophet says, “God said…” the sage says “Here’s what I saw…,” and then “Go look for yourself!”

Van Til and other thinkers downstream from him have made much of the observation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. So it is. If you don’t start there, they will say, then you haven’t got anything. I want to make a slightly different point. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of wisdom. There’s nothing holy about willfully remaining a beginner. The goal is to grow.

So once you have the fear of the Lord, you have the beginning. What more do you need? Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!

Do you see? A sage, speaking in Scripture, is telling you to go outside Scripture into the world, pay attention to what is happening there, and contemplate it–because you will gain wisdom by so doing.

Can you interpret the world wrongly? Sure. Just like you can interpret verbal revelation wrongly. Discernment is required. Mistakes will be made. But God has given us the task: it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out. Let’s be about it.


Devouring the Grandchildren

21 May 2019

A doctrine is like a painting. It’s possible for it to be inaccurate—a landscape painter putting a lighthouse on the edge of the Grand Canyon, for example. On the other hand, even an accurate painting is not a perfect representation. You have to know what to pay attention to. You don’t criticize a painting of the Grand Canyon because the real Grand Canyon doesn’t have brush strokes on the rocks. You don’t look at a Monet and think, “Gee, that feller needed glasses.”

Likewise doctrine. An accurate doctrinal formulation will give you a correct impression of the acts of God that it is describing, but there will always be picky little details that aren’t exact representations. You gotta know how to look at the painting without picking at the brush strokes. The best way to do that is to incarnate the doctrine in practice. Once you have firsthand knowledge of the ways of God that the doctrine describes, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And as it happens, that was the point anyway. Doctrine is not there just to think about; it’s an aid to loving God and your neighbor. It’s meant to be lived.

When a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has himself experienced it, and seen it at work in the world, God’s people are greatly edified. This is often true even if the doctrinal formulation is…shall we say, a bit impressionistic. People usually still get the  point, and are blessed.

By contrast, when a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has not experienced it for himself at any depth, it is worse than useless: it is dead. Even if the propositional content  is mostly correct, nonetheless, it is dead, and as all dead things do, it begins to rot, and provide a breeding ground for maggots.

The doctrine of divine election, for example, is indeed “an unspeakable comfort to godly persons,” as the Westminster divines put it—if it is expounded as Luther or Calvin expounded it. In them, as C. S. Lewis explains, the feeling is unspeakable, scarcely believable joy. It is the joy of the lover who has been chosen by his beloved, regardless of merit, despite all flaws, to have been loved and chosen! And to be assured that the choosing is irrevocable, irreversible! What joy!

Now, I believe that the doctrine of election as taught by Luther and Calvin is a bit impressionistic. Their formulation suffers from serious exegetical and theological flaws. But the experience of relationship with God that they were pointing to is real enough. Expounded with the joy and trust in God that Luther or Calvin had, even their flawed formulations can do quite a bit of good, and little enough harm.

On the other hand, when those same formulations are proclaimed in doubt, with some question as to whether one is chosen, the doctrine does incalculable harm. The result is a paranoid, frantic search for many tests or proofs that might allow someone to attain (at least theoretical) certainty—as required by the late New England Puritans, or in modern times by, say, a John MacArthur or a John Piper. The speaker is often himself somewhat unsure of his election, and the fear is contagious. The hearers understand, at least unconsciously, that this is a terrifying doctrine, because they are hearing it from a terrified man. Soon enough, the terror comes to the surface, and the resulting (slanderous) view of God—petty, autocratic, using eternal human destinies as His personal plaything—becomes, in Lewis’ words, “something not unlike devil worship.”

Now, Luther and Calvin could expound divine election with joy because they were chosen, and they knew it. Despite their propositional errors, their basic understanding of their relationship with God was correct. He did, in fact, love them and conspire to save them before the foundation of the world. When they believed, He did bring them into His family irrevocably, and give them life that would last forever. In all this they were entirely correct. Crucially, they did not just know these things by syllogism. They knew them by experience, by knowing God for themselves and hearing Him in their own souls. Thus fortified, they taught God’s love with joy, as similarly joyful children of the Reformation do to this day.

But their formulations were somewhat in error, and as the generations ran on, the errors became apparent. The doctrine of election was not, in fact, an unspeakable comfort; it was a terror to many tortured souls who did not know if they were chosen. Indeed, because of the errors baked into the early formulations, many poor souls were taught that in this life, they could never know if they had been chosen. This doctrine, despite the joy of Luther and Calvin, devoured its great-grandchildren. This was a sign that something was wrong, and needed to be fixed.

Instead of revisiting their formulations to see what might have gone awry, too many Reformed folks have doubled down, willingly sacrificing their terrified children on the altar of conformity to doctrinal tradition. All the non-Calvinists reading this are no doubt nodding their heads and thinking, “Well, such are the dangers of erroneous doctrine.” Not so fast! Do you imagine yourself to be perfect? Do you think you got it all right, that there are no fuzzy little corners in your doctrine? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course there are—and so you have an opportunity to make the same mistake.

None of our doctrinal formulations—however correct—are immune to this danger.  Peter tells us that ignorant and unstable people can twist even the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). How much more might they exaggerate the flaws of our all too fallible doctrinal formulations?

The cure—the only possible safeguard against dead, rotting doctrine—is to know God for ourselves, and not just from books. This is also the very definition of life: “to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”


Mystical Union: Aiming Right At ‘Em

14 May 2019

Several years back, I got myself in a pile of trouble for talking about mystical union with Christ. Folks in the tradition I grew up in were…resistant, to put it mildly.

With some further years and miles on me, I’m able to reflect on that discussion and see that not everyone was resistant for the same reasons. Best I can tell, there were about six different reasons people didn’t like me talking about mystical union with Christ.

The first reason is the associations the term “mystical” carries with various weird things. “Mystical,” like “intellectual assent” and “legalism,” is a theological cuss word in some circles, and this can be an issue. I expected to encounter this problem when I chose to use the word, but as I said at the time, I don’t believe there was a better choice. With additional years of reflection and considering the alternatives, I still don’t.

The second reason — and this actually surprised me, although it shouldn’t have — is the respectable pedigree that “mystical” has had throughout church history. Evangelical conservatives often harbor a deep contempt for the historical church, and anything the church fathers approved of is automatically suspect.

These first two classes of objectors are suffering from prejudices that need to be overcome. A kid named Fred might have bullied you in second grade, but that doesn’t make every guy named Fred a bully. The word “mystical” might be associated with some people and ideas that you find distasteful, but like the man said: “in understanding be men.” There are realities here the Bible talks about, and believers should talk about them too. Don’t refuse to join the conversation just because someone uses an adjective you don’t like.

A third reason some people object is that they simply don’t understand what I’m saying. For whatever reason, my way of explaining the truths of John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11 and other passages simply doesn’t resonate with them. I suspect many of them haven’t lived these things for themselves, and like virgins hearing a conversation about sex, they simply can’t relate. But many of them, I’m sure, have the experience of walking with God, and for whatever reason, simply aren’t able to talk about this aspect of it.

Fourth, some people object because they don’t see how there can be good grounds for assurance of salvation in this way of understanding relationship with God. To them, all this talk of relationship just seems so slippery and messy. Assurance can’t be allowed to rest on a miasma of relationship talk; it needs a foundation of objectivity in order to remain solid and dependable. These folks are correctly wary of anything that endangers assurance, and in their minds that means all this business about mysticism and relationship has got to go.

The third and fourth classes of objectors are suffering from legitimate misunderstandings, and with them, I hope for the opportunity to have long conversations over meals and drinks. As we explore how they would describe their own life experience of walking with God and living out John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20 and so on, I learn a lot about how other Christians talk, and we are able to explore ways of bridging between my language and theirs. Or if they’re struggling with the assurance side of things, we often talk about their experience and mine, and frequently find that our stories are not so very different. Again, at that point we will have room to explore how to talk about that and relate theology to it.

Finally, there are two groups of objectors who understand very well what I’m trying to say.

The fifth group is composed of people who also live the reality I’m seeking to talk about, but they believe I’ve made an unwise choice of terminology. Basically, we agree on (most of) the doctrine and the praxis; we just don’t yet have a common language for it. I suspect their stance is mostly a result of their theological training scaring them away from all things subjective, with the result that they can’t talk about the very real subjective elements of a relationship with God. These people are fun to talk with, and I do, often. They are fellow workers in the same field of endeavor, and I’m glad to be working alongside them.

The other group understands what I’m saying, and they hate it. They hear me saying that  a person can know his Bible inside and out, and “love” God the way John Hinckley “loved” Jodie Foster, the way Saul of Tarsus loved Yahweh. They understand that I’m saying if there is no acceptance of God personally and on His own terms, then they’re not  loving God; they’re stalking Him, and it will end in murder.

These people have invested themselves heavily in academic understanding of doctrinal principles because that’s what they wanted the Christian life to be about. They haven’t really come to know God as the One who loves them, with all the subjective experience that implies, and they don’t want to. They’re furious when I talk about real relationship with God, and no wonder–I was aiming right at ’em.