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.


An Invitation to Theology

15 March 2019

The first thing to know about theology is that it operates from the inside; it is inherently a believing endeavor. Sociology of religion, comparative religion, cultural anthropology, history of philosophy–these endeavors focus on believers (and the beliefs they hold) as the object of study. They operate, in other words, by looking from the outside in.

But theology cannot be practiced in that way. Theology is not a study of beliefs but an experience of the One about whom people hold those beliefs. To engage in theology is to have your own beliefs about the divine shaped by knowing God yourself, by partaking in the divine nature yourself. In this way, theology is less something you study, and more something you participate in, something you practice, and perhaps something that–to a degree, by God’s grace–you may attain.

***

Theology is not an objective discipline, any more than romancing your spouse is an objective discipline. Objectivity seeks to elide the observer/interpreter, such that anyone might–through a scientifically valid method–come to the exact same understanding. This sort of method is entirely appropriate to the natural sciences, in which we are doomed to observe the objects of our study from the outside. Partaking in the nature of, say, a granite boulder is entirely beyond us. The best we can do is subject it to study.

But where the nature of the endeavor is to know another p/Person, we proceed differently. We seek the other person’s self-revelation. We communicate. If we are successful, there is a kind of mutual indwelling (or to use the old word, perichoresis). All of these are inherently relational acts; it matters who the parties are. To elide the observer/interpreter is to miss the whole point.

***

In hermeneutics texts, much is made of the gap between us and the original author and audience–gaps of time, culture, language, geography, and more. We work diligently to overcome those gaps and try to grasp the situation of the original author and audience in order to better understand the text.

Little is made–at least in the hermeneutics books I was reared on–of the gap between us and the divine Author, although in some respects, that gap is easier to bridge. This side of eternity, Paul is beyond my reach. The Corinthian church was the product of time, place, culture, and circumstances that no longer exist. Through diligent study and imagination, I get as close as I can, but some aspect of a passage may remain forever opaque to me through simple ignorance of an idiom, crucial archaeological fact, or tidbit of cultural knowledge. Many things that were obvious to them are now lost to me in the mists of time. Gary Derickson has given us a window into the viticulture behind John 15, for example. How many other such things are yet to be discovered and articulated?

The divine Author is entirely beyond my reach as well. But I am not beyond His reach, any more than the biblical authors were. And so it is that, unchanged by the passing years, is as present to us now as He was to them then. (More than under the Old Covenant, now that we have the indwelling Spirit.) He offers us the opportunity–if the promises of the sacred text mean anything at all–to know Him directly, in a way that is consonant with, but not limited to, what can be mediated by the Scriptures themselves.

***

tl;dr: God is real. God is present. God speaks. Here. Now. Yes, even to you. Are you listening?

 

 


Subjective Spirituality: The Romans Riddle

2 January 2018

Paul ends Romans 7 crying out for deliverance: “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this dead body?” Paul begins Romans 12 with a charge: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, *acceptable to God*, which is your reasonable service.” The gap between those two passages presents one of the great riddles of Romans. What happens between the end of Romans 7 and the beginning of Romans 12 that qualifies “this dead body” as an acceptable sacrifice?

Mull that over for a minute. 

Paul answers that question in 8:9-11. The body is dead, and will remain unredeemed until the resurrection, but there is a divine thumb on the scales. Despite the body being unredeemed, He gives life to our dead bodies through the Spirit who indwells us.

Once upon a time, knowing that would have been enough for me–I solved the riddle! Yay!!!

But not anymore. I used to be an academic, but these days I’m a pastor and a bodyworker, and seeing people delivered from death is what I care about. I’m very much a practitioner first. So let’s apply it. If we take Romans 8:11 literally—and I don’t see why we shouldn’t—it means that there is a Person who is not me, indwelling me and enabling me to live in a manner that would otherwise be barred to me this side of the resurrection. That is not simply a matter of verbal contemplation; it is as experiential as it gets. So for example, suppose I find myself totally unable to forgive someone. This doctrine teaches me that what I cannot do in my dead body (Romans 7), God can make possible anyway. So I should cry out to God for deliverance, and see what happens.

In God’s providence, I experienced that deliverance long before I ever understood Romans 8.

I had labored to forgive a number of people who had wronged me. I had reached the point where I only had one person left to forgive–and I couldn’t do it. I understood all the doctrine, and I could say all the right words, but it just didn’t work. I hated her in my heart, and that was that. For days I tried. I could not forgive her.

Then, one afternoon, I got down on my knees and prayed a simple prayer: “God, I know you want me to forgive her. You know I want to, but I can’t do it. You have to do this, or it won’t happen.” Then I stood up. I don’t know how to describe what happened other than this: when my knees were on the ground, I hated her. By the time I was standing, the hate was just gone.

God answered my prayer; in Romans terms, the Spirit gave life to my dead body, enabling me to become an acceptable living sacrifice.

On a more recent occasion, I had someone on my table with a severe muscular problem in her leg. As I always do, I asked Jesus to show up and heal what needed to be healed in her. I released the muscles, but when the physical work was over, I could tell that we weren’t done yet. I anointed the area with oil and just held it, waiting. She got tenser, and tenser, and then the dam broke, and she began to sob. I kept holding and waiting. The storm passed, and when she was calm again, I asked for permission to move on. She gave it, and I finished the session. When a client has an emotional release like that, they often don’t tell you what it was about. In this case, she did. As I held that particular muscle, she realized she was harboring bitterness toward a friend who had betrayed her six months earlier. In that moment, she was able to grieve the loss of the friendship, and forgive the betrayal.

I knew almost nothing about my client’s situation; I could never have addressed it in that way. But God worked through me in ways that are well beyond my ability, and enabled her to see something that she’d been unable to see, too.

Another day, I sat across the table from a homeless man named Michael. Michael frequented a corner that I drove by often, and over the past several months, we had become friends. On this particular day, I’d been awake since 4 a.m., so at 9:30 I was having lunch, and buying him breakfast. As we ate, he told me about the several churches he would visit during the course of a week. He liked to go to these particular churches because they didn’t just give him stuff; they let him help out, so he was able to contribute something to them as well. “I go to four different churches, Tim,” he said, “and they tell me four different things about God’s plan for my life. What am I supposed to do?”

I laughed. “What, you want me to be the fifth person to tell you God’s plan for your life? How’s that gonna help?”

He chuckled.

“It sounds to me like you’ve heard plenty of people telling you what God thinks.” I said. “Now, you need to hear it from God.”

He shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You might live a life where God will tell you things, but I don’t live that kind of life. God isn’t going to talk to me.”

I smiled. “Michael, you’ve heard about Jesus dying on the cross, right?”

He nodded, and I continued.

“Lots of people know that it happened, but I bet nobody’s ever told you what it means. Jesus was perfect. He took every failing you have, all those things you are and all those things you’ve done that you think are the reasons God won’t talk to you, and He took them all to the cross with Him. When He died, all that stuff died with Him, and He took it into the grave. When He rose from the dead three days later, He did not come out dragging a Hefty bag full of your junk. He left all that behind, dead and buried. God loves you. He’s crazy about you. He wants to talk with you, and none of that stuff can get in the way.”

I could see that he didn’t really believe me, but he understood what I was saying, so I kept going.

“Let’s just try it,” I said. “Give me 60 seconds.” I waggled my watch. “You listen and see if God talks to you. If you honestly don’t hear anything, you can walk out of here and tell yourself that I’m crazy, and you’ve only lost one minute of your life. But what if I’m right? Would you want to miss out on that?”

He thought about it for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay.”

I didn’t bow my head or close my eyes. I just talked like God was sitting in the booth right next to Michael (because He was). “God, this is Michael. He doesn’t believe that you’ll talk to him. I’m asking you to speak to him now, and to make it really clear, so he can hear you.” And then I shut up.

Surgeon General’s warning: Asking God to speak to people may cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, and anxiety. Of course, I was silently praying furiously for God to speak. Meanwhile, I was watching Michael’s face and my watch, and trying to be calm about it. He looked down at his plate, and sat quietly. 30 seconds passed. Nothing. 40 seconds. Still nothing. I was praying hard: “God, You taught me to do this. I crawled way out here on the skinny branches for You. Don’t You dare let me down.”

With a few seconds to go, suddenly Michael’s face changed.

“What did you hear?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “I have some people that want to help me get off the street. But I haven’t let them because I can’t pay them back. I just had this sudden thought out of nowhere that I need to humble myself and accept the help they’re offering me. That it’s my pride that’s holding me down, and I need to be willing to be humble.” He looked up at me. “Was that God?”

I laughed. “You’ll have to decide that for yourself, buddy.” I told him. “But in my experience, the devil doesn’t usually tell me to be humble, you know?”

I could give many more examples, stories from my own life and others I know. You can probably think of your own, too. (If you can’t, let’s talk. You’re missing out on something important.) But these are sufficient to make the point: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, just like the man said. It even works in intercession, sometimes.
This is, of course, highly subjective. Since the deliverance in question is existential salvation from internal problems, I don’t see how it could be anything but subjective. But the problems were real, and deadly; the salvation is just as real. It’s life in the place of death, as promised in Romans 8:11.

 


…but He never really does

21 July 2015

“Hey, do you think God could really speak today? Could He reveal Himself to someone with a thought, an impression, a circumstance?”

Sure. Shoot, He could do an audible voice if He wanted to. Nobody really thinks God couldn’t do it. He’s God, after all.”

“Great. Glad we’re on the same page about that. So last night, when I was praying, God said…”

“Wait. What do you mean, ‘God said’?”

“I mean that He talked to me, and I heard it. Look here in my journal — I even wrote it down.”

“Oh come on! How do you know that’s God?”

“Same way I know it’s my Mom calling when I hear her on the phone — I know what her voice sounds like.”

“You’re telling me you literally heard an audible voice, and you know it was God?”

“No, I’m telling you God spoke to me in my thoughts, and I know what it sounds like when He does that.”

“Don’t be silly! How could you possibly tell?”

*****

Interesting, huh? Here we have a conversation between two Christians, both of whom profess that God can speak to individuals today — to whomever He wants, anytime He wants. But one of them is certain, in advance of all the evidence, that He didn’t speak to this particular guy last night. This is the difference between theology on paper and theology in real life: only one of them actually expects it to happen. Last night, only one of them was listening in the expectation that God might speak. Big surprise — only one of them heard anything.


Three Critical Questions on the Christian Life

18 May 2014

I had the privilege of going to the inaugural facilitator training course for the Paul Tripp/Tim Lane How People Change small group curriculum, several years back. One point that Tripp made over and over has really stuck with me. “If all we needed were principles, then God could have done everything we needed on Mount Sinai. If all we needed were principles, then why did Jesus come and die? Because we don’t just need principles; we need rescue.”

Indeed. I’d like to address that same line of thought at a slightly higher resolution.

1. If Sinai is sufficient, then why Calvary?

If principles/doctrine alone were sufficient, then God could have gotten it all done at Sinai. If that were true, then why Jesus? Because living by principles is never enough. We needed to be saved from ourselves, and this is something we simply could not do for ourselves, no matter how good the principles might be. The seeds of the problem are inside us, and we can’t excise them.

We have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone,” as the Anglicans say. We simply could not resolve the problem for ourselves; it took Jesus dying our death on the cross. We participate in His death, and in this way we are reconciled to God.

2. If Calvary is sufficient, then why Pentecost?

If Christ’s finished work on the Cross was all that we needed, then why send the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the work all done? No, it isn’t. Calvary reconciled us to God, but reconciliation is only the beginning of what God wants to give us. He wants to give us life.

Through our union with Christ, we participate, not just in His death for us, but also in His life. Ongoing participation in the life of Christ is a continuing miracle of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and comes upon us in anointing for service just as He came upon Jesus for His earthly ministry. It is through the guidance of the Spirit that we advance God’s Kingdom here on earth.

3. What does it look like to live Sinai, Calvary, and Pentecost?

If we mess up the first question, we make the moralistic mistake of trying to earn God’s acceptance. Life turns into a never-ending round of “service” that is much more about our need to see ourselves as useful than it is about meeting actual needs. We become the sort of person that C. S. Lewis was talking about when he penned the epitaph, “She lived her life for others. Now she has peace…and so have they.”

If we mess up the second question, then we make the mistake of trying to seek God’s Kingdom and His righteousness without taking advantage of all His guidance for us. We’ll operate based on the general principles in Scripture — which (to be fair) give far more guidance than most people think. But the Scriptures also give far less guidance than is needed for the life that God would have you to live.

If we get both questions right, if we live into Sinai, Calvary and Pentecost, then we live a life that is guided by the Scriptures. Our character becomes deeply aligned with God’s character as He has expressed it in the Scriptures. And our lives become masterpieces, unpredictable works of art. Just applying the principles on our own would generate a decent life, but it would never yield the beautiful surprises that come from a living relationship with God.

For example, God used me to help a homeless guy named Michael last year. The biblical principles would lead me to helping homeless folks–the stranger in your gates, the least of these, and all that. But I have no shortage of opportunity to minister to homeless folks, and Michael was not hanging around the places I would usually go to minister. What led me to Michael was that God literally told me to turn the car around, go back to that exit ramp, and give him $5 and a message: “God has not forgotten you.”

I did. As the relationship developed over subsequent conversations, it turned out there were certain truths Michael needed to hear, and then to live. It just so happened that these were the same truths God was teaching me right then.

Was the guidance to engage that specific homeless guy at that specific time biblical? No. It was far more specific than I could have gleaned from the Torah, or from the Old Testament, or even from the completed canon. But it didn’t conflict in any way with Scripture; it just went further than general instructions to the whole Body could go. Was it God? Of course, and the good fruit bore that out, as Jesus taught us that it would.

In other words, to add to Tripp, we didn’t just need principles; we needed rescue. And we don’t just need rescue; we need relationship.