One Bad Day on a Road Trip

3 March 2020

Saul of Tarsus: a serious young Bible scholar who ditched everything he’d been taught, betrayed his mentors, and blew up his whole life based on one bad day on a road trip.

Watch out for mystical experience, kids. It’ll wreck your theology….

If we believe that God is who the Bible says He is, we will never deride the search for spiritual experience. God built us for communion with Him. Adam walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, and from that day to this, we hunger to experience the presence of God. You don’t have to be a Christian to know this — it’s only natural to seek it out, the same way we seek out water when we’re thirsty.

The unbeliever’s problem is that he thirsts for God, and at the same time doesn’t like Him (as described in Romans 1:18ff.) That aversion leads to a search for all kinds of other spiritual experiences in the vain hope of quenching the thirst without having to deal with the One he thirsts for. In the Old Testament times, Israel struggled with idol worship for this reason. God cured them of idolatry, and by the time of Jesus, Israel faced a different set of temptations. Many Christians today are so frustrated or bewildered by this proliferation of options that they have given up on spiritual experience altogether. Rather than sift the true from the false, they deride the search for spiritual experience as itself an evil thing, and take refuge in an idolatrous quest for moral or doctrinal purity — as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. 

This is an utter failure of discernment. We are built for relationship with God. We are not meant to just do holy things and think holy thoughts, but to live alongside God, to experience Him. And we are meant to integrate those experiences into our doctrinal understanding. 

Jesus had the antidote to the Pharisees’ temptations: “If you won’t believe the words, believe the works.” He didn’t denigrate experience; He challenged people to take their experience seriously, and seek out the theological ramifications. Jesus provided the people around Him with many experiences that they could not integrate into their existing theology, because their theology was wrong.

What do you do then? 

Fix your theology, of course. Your theology must remain correctable—correctable by Scripture, and by experience.

If your theology cannot be corrected by your experience, then you are in the position of the Pharisees who rejected Jesus because He wasn’t what their theology told them the Messiah would be like. (Their theology was wrong, of course — but yours is wrong in places too. And that’s the point.)

Of course, everything can be done badly, and so can this. Someone can experience a personal tragedy, a business reversal, a setback of some kind, and decide that God doesn’t love him anymore. That would be a mistake — unfortunately, a very common one. When people say “Don’t make theology out of your experience,” they are trying to guard against this error. But the way they’re going about it is a mistake.

This person’s theology is woefully inadequate. He had a vending-machine view of God: ” I will live a decent, non-scandalous, red-state existence, and in return, God will shower me with personal comfort and material abundance. Since God’s not holding up His end of the bargain, He must not love me anymore.” That theology is wrong, and experience is showing just how wrong it is. This person certainly ought not cling to his theology and deny his experience. Rather, he should allow his experience to drive him back to God and the Scriptures for an explanation. He certainly should allow his experience — i.e., what God is actually doing — to correct his theology. If a literal act of God can’t correct your theology, what would it take?


The Ninth Day of Christmas: Junk on the Mirror

2 January 2020

In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself. 

It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….

The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.

So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God? 


Axial Tilt and Incarnation

24 December 2019

At Christmas, the Divine Word became flesh. Blasphemy to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, and sedition to the Romans, but it happened all the same. The very fact that such a thing is even possible demonstrates the central promise of Christianity: that we human beings, just as we are, can partake of the divine nature, just as it is, without any fudging, equivocation, or dismal compromises. Any and all of the resources of heaven—whatever you might need to face the challenges of your life—will fit into a human being.

We know this, because it has already happened.

And when Jesus proved it possible, He also invited you to join Him in the dance. Want in? Ask, and it will be given to you, like the Man said.

Axial tilt is the reason for the season, but the incarnation of God is the reason we celebrate.


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.


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.


On Disrespecting the Manure

12 April 2019

One of the most basic promises of Christianity is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His continuing ministry to the believer. Every church and ministry I’ve ever worked with has affirmed this…in theory. In practice, there was a bit more variation. The idea that you could have a meaningful and vital relationship with a spiritual being–not just a doctrinal system or an arrangement of mental furniture, but actual person that is not you, communicating to you–well, that was challenging for a lot of folks. In many churches and ministries, they tended to cover their asses with an orthodox doctrinal statement on the point, while denying any instance of it in practice. They all believe the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, but tell them that He showed you something in Hebrews 2 an hour ago and they don’t believe it.

When interacting with such communities, believers with a more robust relationship with the Spirit often point to John 16:13:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

The objection we often face in response is, “That was referring to the apostles, the people Jesus was talking to at the time.” On the face of it, the claim has some curb appeal. It draws directly from the context–who could argue with that? 

Well…me. I have questions:

  1. Sez who? On what basis? Can I use that same approach to dismiss anything Jesus ever said that I don’t want to apply now? (“I mean, sure, He said lust is as bad as adultery, but that was only for the people He was talking to at the time….”) No? Okay, distinguish that case from this one.
  2. We’re ready enough to apply 14:2, 14:27, or 15:13-14 to any believer, anytime, with no discussion whatsoever. We do this because Jesus is speaking to these men as “His own;” we are also His own, and in fact inviting us to become His own is kinda what the book is about. So on what principle are we so ready to read 16:13 differently from other things Jesus said to the same people in the same immediate context?
  3. These folks usually want to apply 16:13 to the men in the room…and Paul. The interpretation proposed flatly excludes him, and he’s a clear counterexample. How is this not blatant special pleading?
  4. 1 John 2:27. From where I’m standing, John directly applies the doctrine Jesus gave in John 16:13 to his readers, extending it well beyond the apostolic circle. If we needed some extraordinary justification for reading 16:13 the way we already read, say, 15:13-14, isn’t John providing it?

I want to set forth a positive case for reading this passage as speaking about something that happens for us, today, if we are listening. Most of my case is implicit in the questions above.

Jesus is speaking to His own, talking about what it will be like when the Spirit has come. He told His disciples, one of whom–John–preserved those words and wrote them down in a book that invites its readers to join in that group and become “His own” too. John’s Gospel invites believers into a lively relationship with the Spirit.

John reiterates that stance toward relationship with the Spirit–and this particular aspect of the Spirit’s guidance in our search for truth–in 1 John 2:27, for yet another group of addressees; so why shouldn’t we expect Him to do the same for all those who belong to Jesus, right down to today?

I have no doubt that a suitably educated theologian could apply his theological system or his scholarly skepticism in such a way as to bury the above two paragraphs under a mountain of doubt. It is also possible to bury a diamond under a wheelbarrow-load of manure. This does not call into question the nature of the diamond; it just reveals the guy with the wheelbarrow for a churl and a lackwit.

As the diamond does not cease being a diamond, a true reading of Jesus’ words does not cease being true, no matter what is being heaped upon it. We are not obliged to treat the manure with respect.