Skip to main content
32508720452_4a429ac6fc_k

God’s Extravagance

 

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs  

          We have a politician on the national scene who consistently speaks in superlatives, a practice which leads to some skepticism about when the superlative is really applicable to the thing he’s talking about—sort of the “boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ principle.  We all have some temptation to exaggerate in order to enhance people’s perception of our talents and accomplishments, but we always run the risk of being caught out by doing so.  The only being who can legitimately speak in, or be spoken of, in superlatives is God, and that occurs frequently in Scripture.  Take Eph. 1:17-22 as an example, in which Paul prays for the Ephesians,

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.

Note that the greatness of God’s power toward believers is “immeasurable”; that Christ has been seated “far above all rule and authority” and “above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come,” that is, for all eternity, without end.

A little later in the epistle, Paul prays again that the disciples in Ephesus will be “rooted and grounded in love, [and] may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17b-19).  Paul is not one to speak in moderate terms when he refers to what God has done and is doing for those in Christ; he wants all of his  readers  to “comprehend . . . the breadth, and length and height and depth” of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”  But that understanding is not to be achieved by human effort, but by the superlative “power that is at work in us,” which is able “to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.”  The fountainhead of such an immeasurable outpouring of God’s Spirit is the atoning death of Jesus, an unfathomably extravagant gift of the Father, an unbelievably radical act of obedience by the Son.  As Paul says in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (8:31b-32).

In the Apostle’s description of his own response to such extravagant love we see the challenge for all of us to be similarly committed, without restraint or reservation: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).  In another place he describes being fully possessed by the Spirit of Christ, keeping nothing of his former self, so that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  Jesus Himself expected an extravagant commitment from those who proposed to follow Him, calling His inner twelve to leave their occupations to become fishers of men, bidding a rich man to sell all he had and give to the poor, and challenging people to put the kingdom of God ahead of all other earthly ties.

I will conclude with a poem that depicts a contrast between moderate, conventional responses to Christ and a radical, all-giving act of love.  In the scriptural account on which the poem is based, Jesus draws a symbolic parallel between her action and Jesus’ own pouring out of Himself on the cross: “She has done a beautiful thing to me . . . .  She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:6, 8).  We should remember her when we’re tempted to be merely moderate Christians.

 

 

The Broken Jar

(Mark 14:3-9)

 

The ointment with abandon

Runs down His cheek,

Sweetly joining tears of love

Set flowing by her extravagance.

Beauty and prescience

Are mingled there,

While spare and cautious faces

Grimace at the waste.

They advocate the shorter way—

Slipping pennies to the poor,

And making sure the books are kept.

But Jesus wept

That one should share His sacrifice,

And break the jar to pour out all.

                              –Elton D. Higgs

                                (Jan 9, 1977)

mosaic-pentecost1

Twilight Musings: “Groaning Together”

 

 By Elton Higgs

One day when I was reading the familiar passage in Rom. 8 on our hope for the final deliverance from sin through the resurrection of our bodies, I was struck with the recurrence of the verb “groan” in the space of eight verses:

20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom. 8:20-27)

There is an interlinking in these uses of “groaning,” with the first occurrence referring to the whole of creation, the second referring to all of God’s people, and the third to the agency of the Holy Spirit interceding for us with God.

This section of chapter 8 was introduced by the affirmation that as believers in Christ we have been certified by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit as children of God and heirs of His kingdom.  However, our walk in the Spirit as sons and daughters of God entails suffering with Christ “in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).  Accordingly, both of the first two occurrences of groaning in this passage are associated with a particular kind of productive human suffering, childbirth.  The first, the groaning of the physical creation to be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v.21), is then linked to the inward groaning of each Christian for our “adoption as sons [and daughters], the redemption of our bodies” (v.23).  Our suffering with Christ is not meaningless, but like the pains of childbirth, it ends in great joy, so that, as Paul has assured us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18-19).

But the final rebirth into eternal form that we share with the rest of creation is something that we must wait for in patience and faith, and while we endure in steadfast hope, we cry out to God in our weakness.  That is, we try to articulate our groaning as we find our spiritual resources taxed to the breaking point, and the same Holy Spirit that dwells within us and guides us in His way becomes an interceding translator, presenting our petitions “with groanings too deep for words” (v. 26).  What an abundance of mercy that God, in listening to our prayers, hears beyond our power to know just what to ask for and takes instead what the Spirit tells Him of what we really long for and need.  In a sense, the groanings of Christ on the cross have been transmuted as a form of grace to all of creation, including ourselves, and this earthly groaning is in turn transmuted into the groaning of the Holy Spirit on our behalf that transcends human capabilities.  And the Son who initiated the process partners with the Third Person of the Godhead to bring us redeemed, but as yet imperfect mortals into the Presence of the Abba Father to whom we pray.

Image: Pentecost Mosaic. Public Domain 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giovanni_Battista_Pittoni_-_Sacrifice_of_Isaac_-_WGA17977.jpg

Twilight Musings: “Two Child Sacrifices”

By Elton Higgs 

The account of Abraham being ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering is shocking, not only to our natural sensibilities, but to our understanding of God.  The same God who issued this command to Abraham says through the prophet Jeremiah that Judah’s burning of its children as sacrifices is one of the “detestable things” they have done, something that God says never came into His mind to command (Jer. 7:30-32).  But as I was reading the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22, it occurred to me that its deepest meaning is not just as a general foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus, but as an analogy of the relationship between God the Father and His Son when Jesus was crucified.  It may be that parallel with God’s purpose to prove the faith of His servant Abraham was His desire to enlighten us about what was happening when the Almighty Father refused to respond to the pleas of His Son to be delivered from the cup of suffering that His Father was asking Him to drink.

The scriptural account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac gives us one of the most poignant bits of dialogue in the Bible.

“And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son.  And he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  So they went both of them together.  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

The key words of this whole account are “God will provide,” which occur here and at the end of the story, after God has supplied the ram that Abraham can substitute for his son: “So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (22:14).  When father Abraham first said those words to his apprehensive son, there was no objective assurance that it would be so.  But as the writer of Hebrews says, “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19).  “God will provide” describes both the intangible faith before the fact, and the fact that fulfilled the faith when God provided His substitute ram.  God then commends him for not having withheld his “only son” from God.

That phrase “only son” was also used when God first issued His command to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering . . .” (Gen. 22:2), and of course that designation is appropriate for a story that foreshadows God the Father’s sacrifice of His “only Son.”  As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, there was a conversation between the Father and the Son about how the project underway perhaps needed to be reconsidered.  Abraham’s answer to Isaac referred to a Higher Power that could resolve their difficult situation, albeit in some way yet to be perceived by the two of them.  Abraham was not responsible for the outcome, but only for his acceptance of the outcome, since he was subject to God.  Jesus’ implicit question to His Father is, “Isn’t there some other way than the path you’ve set me on?”  And though an angel came to strengthen Him, the Father remained silent (see Luke 22:41-44), even when the Son renewed His prayer and sweated drops of blood.  Father God was in the position of Abraham, but there was no higher power for Him to defer to.  This Father is called to make the sacrifice of His Son through the necessity of His own great love for mankind, which supersedes even His love for His Son.  This fact is borne out in the words of the familiar passage in John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

God could spare the son of Abraham, but the ultimate cost of sparing Isaac and countless others from paying the penalty for sin was for His own Son to die instead.  What anguish the Father must have felt when He had to allow His Son to drink the bitter cup, and ultimately had to turn His face away while Jesus was on the cross.  The final meaning of the substitutionary ram provided to Abraham was to be played out in the  sacrifice of the very Lamb of God.

 

 

16452000312_5216e10722_k

Twilight Musings: “The Ambiguous Branch”

By Elton Higgs 

Two Messianic passages in Isaiah speak of the Savior as a shoot from an apparently dead source, but they are starkly different in tone.  In Isaiah 11 we have a mighty King:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . .  [W]ith righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

(Is. 11: 1, 4)

Here the emphasis is on the Messiah as triumphal ruler, exercising divine power to bring justice and peace on the earth.  In contrast, the other passage, Isaiah 53, presents a despised and rejected Messiah who is put to death unjustly:  He

grew up . . . like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53: 2-3)

His role here is seen, not as ruler, but as one “wounded for our transgressions” (v. 5) and “oppressed” (v. 7).

I find it both startling and instructive that that there should be such contrasting uses of the same image of the Messiah as an unexpected offshoot or sprout.  Both applications of the image are, of course, true, but they depict different stages of the Messiah’s impact on the world, and they need to be seen in the proper sequence.  The presentation in Isaiah 11 focuses on the Davidic lineage of Jesus and on the ultimate rule of Christ on the New Earth when he reigns as David’s heir, exercising power over the “Peaceable Kingdom” depicted in Isaiah 11 and 65:17-25.  However, this manifestation of the Messiah was not to come merely as a renewal of the flawed political Kingdom of Israel, nor was it to be a direct outcome of the First Advent of the Christ, but as a component of His Second Coming.  Before the full fruition of Jesus as the Son of David must come the fulfillment of His mission as the Son of God, accomplished through His death as the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God.  Only in that way could the temporal throne of David be transmuted into the Eternal Kingdom.

Moreover, that is also the pattern for us as God’s children.  If we are to be glorified with Him, we must first participate in His suffering (see Rom. 8:17).  Reflecting that truth, and in the spirit of the Advent season, I present the following poem.

 

The Budding Stump

(Isaiah 11:1-3 and 53:1-3)

The Stump of David,

Cracked and grey with age,

Neglected, cast aside,

Now sprouts again, as God had said.

Not couched in beauty, or in power,

Comes this obscure and unexpected Branch;

Nor with glory sought by swords,

Drenching Israel’s enemies in blood–

Though bloodshed nascent lies within.

O Lord of stumps,

Whose sapience informs

What men have cast aside,

And makes to grow again

What You Yourself have pruned away:

Take now the hopes of glory

Grown and nourished by our pride;

Reform them by Your promised Shoot,

That we may find the power

That lies in roots, and not in mighty trees.

Elton D. Higgs (Dec. 26, 1982)

 

 

Image: “Winter Bloom” by MelissaTG. CC License. 

4161935408_9b02a46dd9_b

Three Reasons Christmas Matters for Morality

By Jonathan Pruitt 

At this time of year, Christmas images are everywhere. As we walk into the grocery store, we see Santa and his reindeer painted in the window, adorned by the phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” As we drive by a neighbor’s house, we notice a brightly lit nutcracker. Close beside, a nativity. These decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, and by the first week in December, they just blend into the background. I think the lack of attention we pay to ornaments often extends to Christmas itself. We hear the sermons and sing the carols, but the reality they point to, we often overlook. The preacher says, “One of Jesus’ names is ‘Emmanuel.’ That means ‘God is with us.” We nod our heads, and we know that is a good thing. But why is it a good thing, exactly? And what is this business about “peace on earth and good will to men?” That’s a question I aim to answer at least partially by giving three reasons Christmas matters for morality.

  1. Jesus’ birth reveals the metaphysical nature of human beings

Many atheists today think that human beings are merely biological machines. For example, Richard Dawkins has famously said, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. … This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.” A similar idea is expressed by Daniel Dennett who thinks of humans as “information processing machines” created by mindless natural forces. Now, Dawkins and Dennett are likely quick to affirm the dignity and value of human persons. But difficulty arises when we ask, “How is it that a machine could have such value?” It does not seem the bare matter could ground real value. Besides that, what follows from such a view is that humans have no genuine free will. Instead, their actions are determined by physical necessity. Not everyone agrees this precludes free will, but the views of such compatibilists strain credulity and common sense. Another problem is that on such reductive materialist views, humans as humans don’t even exist. Instead what we have is a pile of parts arranged human-wise. Humans are, when we take the view seriously, a collection of elements hanging together due to natural forces. “Human” is just the term that human-shaped piles call other human-shaped piles. With a view like this, it easy to see why ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that very young babies or the mentally disabled are justifiably euthanized.[1]

Consider the contrast presented in the Christmas story. For one, there is a certain metaphysical view of human persons at work. God became a man.  We’ve got to keep in mind that God did not just appear to become a man. He really did become a man. If this is true, then humans could not possibly be mere machines. As Jesus tells us, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Something that is essentially and necessarily spiritual cannot become only material and retain its identity. If God, who is spirit, became a pile of parts arranged human-wise, he could no longer be called God. Therefore, there must be something more to man than his physical parts. But what kind of thing must humans be for God to become one of us? It seems that, at the least, humans need to be souls.

Why is this so? First we must realize that the Second Person of the Trinity existed as a person prior to his incarnation. This person is a person without any physical parts. If this person continues to be a person in the incarnation, his personhood cannot depend on any physical parts or else he would not be identical with himself prior to incarnation. That is to say, the material parts of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must be only accidental properties and not essential ones. If they were essential, it would mean there was an essential difference between Jesus incarnated and Jesus prior to his incarnation. The person incarnated would not be the same person as the Second Person of the Trinity. But, Jesus, who is an essentially spiritual person, became an actual human person. Consider what this must means for humans in general. If Jesus really became a human, humans must also be essentially spiritual persons. Humans, then, must essentially be non-material substances; humans must be souls.[2]

If humans are souls, everything they do is not determined by the physical laws of the universe. Having a soul also provides the “metaphysical goods” to ground a human nature. If humans are souls, they are not piles of parts. Instead, they are a unified substance endowed by God with personhood. These powers include the power of volition so that humans are able to direct their lives toward one end or another. So when we see Jesus laying in manger, one of the things we ought to perceive is a rejection of the reductive view of human persons proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. The incarnation tells us that humans are body and soul. As such, they have the capacity to transcend the determinative laws of nature and become agents, capable of directing their own lives.

  1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings

Jesus’ birth also demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings. It does this a couple of ways. First, as we read in John 3:16, God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world. God loved humanity and so he made a way for us to be saved from our sins. And he did this at very great cost. God could have loved us, but only a little. In that case, he might refrain from sending his Son, but feel very bad about doing so. Suppose you have a friend who you loved only half-heartedly. Unfortunately, some malicious criminals take your friend hostage. They are the kind of criminals that will slowly torture and kill your friend just for the fun of it. And then these criminals send you a ransom note saying that, if you agree, you can take her place. Now, only loving your friend half-heartedly, you feel empathy for her, but you don’t make the trade. You would have to love your friend deeply and fully if you were to trade your life for hers. And this is what Jesus has done for us.

For humans, though, we often love what we should not. We love things that are not good. However, God, who is maximally good, has no misplaced affections. When God loves us, he does so because we are his children and made in his image. We have intrinsic value and are therefore worth loving. Notice, though, that this worthiness is not autonomous from God, as if we could make ourselves worth loving. Instead, we are only worth loving because God graciously made us in his image, investing us with the worth we possess. As Mark Linville puts it: “God values human persons because they are intrinsically valuable. Further, they have such value because God has created them after his own image as a Person with a rational and moral nature.”

The fact that Jesus came as a man is another way his birth shows the value and dignity of humans. Not only were humans worth saving, it was also worth becoming a human to do it. Consider this proposition: “Being a human is good.” How could we know whether this was true or false? A reductive atheist would have real trouble here because (1) there are no such things as human beings, only human shaped piles, and (2) there is no clear way to make sense of “good.” David Bentley Hart, with his characteristic confidence and cadence, writes, “Among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics.” However, as Christians we know both that humans exist and that God grounds the good. We also know that God, being maximally great, only ever does what is good. Therefore, if God became a human being, being a human being must be good. That may sound like a trivial idea, but consider the implications. If being human is good, it means that our lives have meaning. We do not need to progress to the next stage of evolution, we only need to live as humans as God intended. It also means, contra the worldview of many, that there’s nothing inherently bad about the body; salvation includes the redemption of the body, not deliverance from it. If being human is good, all humans have dignity and value.

  1. Jesus’ birth means it is possible for humans to live the moral life

If we consider the possibility of living the moral life on reductive atheism, we end up with some dim prospects. One worry is that there is no objectively good moral life. This is why so many atheists talk of making one’s own meaning in life. Though the universe is cold and dark, human ought to nevertheless pull themselves up by the bootstraps and choose to live a life of meaning. I am inclined to think this is just wishful thinking. Besides this, if humans are machines and have no free will, it seems impossible to live a moral life. It seems that for a choice to be moral, it must be chosen by an agent. We don’t think our computers are immoral when they crash (despite the temptation); neither are human biological machines when they do something destructive.

Further, unless the universe just happens to cause us to live a moral life by accident, we will have to work at becoming a virtuous person. We must act as agents who are capable of making moral progress. Atheist Sam Harris agrees and makes this suggestion: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”[3] But of course, to say that we can steer ourselves in any sense is to discard the idea that humans are machines. In order to steer ourselves, we must be something more than that. So reductive atheists seem to have no hope for living the moral life, whatever that might be. And the way Harris in such sanguine fashion affirms a contradiction as if doing so makes sense doesn’t eliminate the incoherence.

The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests a very different outcome. To see why, we must go all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There we see that God made man in his image and to rule and reign as his representatives on the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were, in a very real sense, responsible for realizing the kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is what humans were made for, a place where God, humans, and creation live together in peace. It is important to understand here that peace means much more than we modern readers might normally think. We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence. But for the Jews, peace was much more robust than that. Peace, for them, was happiness and human flourishing—shalom. If we live in peace, we live according to the created order, enjoying and appreciating God and all that he has made, especially other humans.

However, humans chose to disobey God and thus sin entered the world. The effects of sin were so dramatic that humans could no longer live as God intended; the kingdom of God could not be established by these fallen humans. However, God did not leave us in this predicament. God set into motion a plan that would restore the kingdom of God to the earth and the story of the Bible is very much this story. God called Abraham and promised that through him, all the people of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Then, from the descendants of Abraham, God formed the nation of Israel. God promised Israel a King who would restore peace to the earth. God says this King will take away punishment and take great delight in his people. He will “rescue the lame” and “gather the exiles”; he will restore their fortunes (Zeph 3:15;19-20).  Zechariah records for us what God says it will be like when this King comes (8:3-12):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.

The takeaway from this passage should be that this King will restore the robust, Jewish notion of peace to the world. Without this King, humans would be left without hope and the possibility of ever flourishing as humans. But, under the reign of this King, the effects of sin will be done away with and human flourishing will once again be possible.

We are also told by Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem and from the tribe of Judah; his origin will be “from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). So when Jesus, Son of God and from the family of Judah, was born in Bethlehem, we know this must be the King about whom we were told. We should understand that God has kept his promise to make the world right again. Now, while Jesus was still laying in a manger, how this would happen had not been made clear. That would come later. But we should be very happy indeed to know that God, our King, was born on Christmas some 2000 years ago because with his birth came the promise that humans can live as God intended – in peace.

 

 

[1] Singer thinks that the only thing that counts as a person is a rational, self-conscious person. Babies and the mentally disabled are therefore not persons and do not deserve the same rights as other persons. See for example his Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (1988), Oxford University Press.

[2] This is not to say that having a body is not the ideal way for humans to exist. However, humans can apparently be separated from their bodies at least for a short while. Paul, for example, was caught up to the third heaven. Also, prior to the Second Coming, humans will apparently exist sans bodies while they await the resurrection. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae defend this view in Body & Soul (2000) IVP Academic.

[3] Sam Harris, Free Will. Simon & Schuster.

Photo: “Nativity” by Jess Weese. CC License. 

5201-king-david-in-prayer-pieter-de-grebber

A. Thornhill’s The Chosen People: Chapter 2: “God Chose Whom?”

Summary by C. P. Davis

In this chapter, Thornhill, after drawing out the distinction between what he terms “individual” and “corporate” election, discusses individual election in Second Temple thought. He begins by first noting that there is a touch of artificiality to these two terms, inasmuch as neither of them is used within Second Temple literature. This, however, should not overshadow the fact that there is a distinction between these two concepts, whatever one might call them. The chapter is divided into four major sections and a summary. We will briefly overview each of the major sections.

The first section, “The Character of the Elect,” is devoted to showing that Jews from the Second Temple period did not necessarily think of election in terms of salvation. The evidence seems to indicate that salvation, though an important corollary, was still just a corollary to the main thrust of election. But if salvation is not the main point, what is? Thornhill argues that the character of the elect fills this spot. In regards to salvation as election, our author writes, “Jews did not necessarily think in those categories” (28). The first bit of evidence comes from Wisdom of Ben Sira, which is clearly not focused on “otherworldly” notions, but rather has an eye to the practical life here and now. Ben Sira is largely concerned with displaying the magnificent qualities of the elect before God. In a telling section of his work (Sir 44:1–50:29), Ben Sira highlights God’s choice of famous Israelites, all of whom have been selected because of some inherent quality each possessed. Moses, in particular, is said to be chosen because he was faithful and meek. Character clearly plays a role for Ben Sira, but what about others?

The idea that character is relevant to election is also found in a number of additional psalms of David, some of which were discovered at Qumran. Psalm 152 and 153 portray David as one that is holy and elect, the two terms being linked. This seems to indicate that election has to do with David’s character before God. This is supported further by Psalm 155 where David is seen pleading with God to save Israel, on the basis of the faithful whom God has chosen. All of these psalms share the common theme of linking personal piety with God’s choice. But there is even more evidence for this concept in 1 Enoch. In fact, it is frequent that one finds election attached to personal disposition in this work. Like the psalms, 1 Enoch links the terms “elect,” “holy,” and “righteous,” in such a way that it is hard to separate the notion of election from an individual’s piety.

51djmwg4wpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_  “Chosen for a Purpose” is Thornhill’s second section, and here the focus shifts from character to function. That is, election deals not only with the piety of an individual, but with the role that person is to fulfill here and now. For Ben Sira, Moses was clearly chosen. Now, if one stops there the picture is not complete; one must ask what Ben Sira had in mind with this choosing. Moses was not simply chosen for salvation, but was chosen “so that he might teach Jacob the covenant, and Israel his decrees” (Sir 45:5). Again, the additional psalms of David tell the same story, only here David, not Moses, is the chosen. David is actually said to be chosen against the natural choice of man. God had a preferred choice, and this choice was for the purpose of leading the flock of Israel. As Thornhill points out, this passage is eminently “office-oriented” (37). The situation is no different in the Psalms of Solomon. Here the focus is once more on David and God’s choice of him to rule Israel. Interestingly, Israel is rebuked in this psalm because its sin had effectively cast off blessings that come through submitting to the Lord’s chosen. The only way to fix the problem is to look for one in the line of David to rule Israel.

In the third section, “Corporate Representation,” Thornhill unpacks one final aspect of individual election. Though coming close to corporate election, the concept of representation focuses on the individual as a reflection of the masses. Under this aspect of election God might treat a group in accordance with the stance of an individual. Jubilees offers a number of examples. This retelling of the book of Genesis casts God’s choice of Jacob in terms of obedience and righteousness. It might be noted that character is once again brought to the fore. However, a new development can be seen here: Jacob becomes the paradigm for the covenant community. A similar insight may also be gleaned from Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Specifically, the Testament of Simeon 5:1-6 indicates that Levi and Judah represent the remnant of God’s faithful, and both the Testament of Dan and the Testament of Naphtali, though not clearly making the same identification, elevate Levi and Judah in such a way that the same type of picture seems to be present. But perhaps the clearest instances of this corporate representation can be seen in 1 Enoch. Thornhill notes a number of locations that house this idea, among which 1 Enoch 39:6 makes clear that the “Righteous/Elect One ensures the salvation and blessing of the righteous/elect ones” (49).

The final section, “Paul and Chosen Individuals,” seeks to evaluate the writings of Paul in light of the preceding material. Again, the focus is upon Paul’s doctrine of individual election. In Galatians 1:15­–16, one finds Paul speaking of himself as one that was chosen for a specific task. Romans 16:13 portrays Rufus as one who had been chosen as a prominent member of the local church. Adam and Jesus are then presented as the paradigmatic individual representatives (in this case of the entire human race!) in 1 Corinthians 15:20–24. And in the case of Jesus, this issue becomes even more acute when thinking of the atonement (2 Cor 5:18–21). Needless to say, each aspect of individual election, as articulated above, can be found in numerous segments of Paul’s material.

 

Image: King David in Prayer By Pieter de Grebber (circa 1600–1652/1653) – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15144058

 

domenico_gargiulo_david_bearing_the_ark_of_testament_into_jerusalem

Twilight Musings: “Power, Holiness, and the Ark”

The Ark of the Covenant was created according to God’s specifications to house three items: the two stone tablets on which were written the Decalogue; a container of God’s miraculous manna from the wilderness wanderings; and Aaron’s rod that budded as evidence of his divine appointment as High Priest.  The Ark was the center of God’s Presence in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), and therefore it was to reside in the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could enter.  However, during the period of the Judges, the Ark was lost to the Philistines, and when they returned it to Israel, it came to rest in Kiriath-jearim, not far from Jerusalem.  It was still there when David was made King of Israel, and one of his earliest acts (I Chron. 13:5-14) was to move the Ark to Jerusalem in anticipation of the building of the Temple.  The attempt proved to be abortive, and David’s experience in that failure marked a significant turning point in his understanding of God and his relationship to Him.

During the period of David’s life before he was made King, he was on the run from the first king of Israel, Saul.  When Saul was rejected by God because of his disobedience, David was anointed King secretly while he was still a boy.  He experienced a brief ascendency when he came forward to slay the giant Goliath, and then was made a commander of Saul’s army.  But when he incurred Saul’s jealousy and wrath, he was forced to flee and became the leader of a rag-tag group of malcontents and lived as an outlaw in caves and wilderness areas.  During that period, he wrote such Psalms as the 18th, which focuses on God’s powerful deliverance of David from his enemies (including Saul, according to the heading).  This reflects the understandable focus of David on God’s power and might, an emphasis that was still there when he proposed to move the Ark to Jerusalem.  Consequently, he made some major errors that forced him to adjust his focus to recognize the importance of God’s holiness.

The Ark was designed with metal loops at each lower corner, so that poles could be inserted through them to enable the Ark to be carried without its being touched, a procedure which God had specified to underline the holiness of this special artifact that represented the very Presence of God.  In disregard to this command about how to transport the Ark, it was put on an ox-cart, and when the oxen stumbled at one point in its journey, Uzzah, one of the men driving the cart, quite naturally put out his hand to steady the Ark and keep it from falling.  Although Uzzah seems not to have had any active intent to show disrespect toward the Ark, he was struck dead by the Lord for committing sacrilege.  Indeed, God’s judgment was on the whole situation wherein David and the leaders of Israel had either forgotten God’s command as to how the Ark was to be carried, or thought it unimportant.  David acknowledges his great error when he makes a second, successful effort to bring the Ark to Jerusalem (I Chron. 15:1-16:1).  After specifying that only the Levites could transport the Ark in the way prescribed by God, David observed: “Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule” (15:13).  So “the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord” (v. 15).

But David’s immediate response to the slaying of Uzzah is not submissive (“David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah” [I Chron. 13:11]), and he obviously had to work through that anger to realize the enormity of his offence against God’s holiness.  A part of his coming to that understanding was a feeling about God that he had probably not experienced before: “And David was afraid of God that day” (13:12).  All of David’s experience of God before this point, from his being given the power to defeat Goliath to divine deliverance from his enemies in the wilderness, seems to have evoked love for the Lord and gratitude toward Him, but not fear.  Why was it important for David both to love and thank God and to have fear evoked by radical exposure to His holiness?  The answer is akin to the reason that we must understand and accept not only God’s generous grace and mercy toward us, but also embrace the fact of His wrath toward sin, His judgment.  To see only God’s mercy and goodness is to ignore what it cost Him to overcome His righteous wrath and judgment toward sin and sinners and to be oblivious to His inherent holiness that makes it impossible to allow sin in His presence.  Impossible, that is, unless God Himself does something to make it possible.  And the ultimate Good News is that God sacrificed a part of Himself to pay the price demanded by His wrath.

Only a shadow of this truth was available to David under the Old Covenant, and his crucial experience with the Ark drove him to the immediate acceptance of the fact that God’s holy Presence in the Ark could be accommodated only by the yearly sacrifice of atonement within the Holy of Holies that was the Ark’s ordered dwelling place.  When it finally came to rest in the Tabernacle tent David provided for it in Jerusalem, David had finally come to realize that God’s holiness properly evoked fear and trembling, as well as gratitude that God had provided a way for His holiness to dwell with His people without destroying them.  Herein was the seed of the complete Good News that a full, final, and eternally sufficient sacrifice had been made through the death of God’s own Son so that God in the integrity of His holiness could dwell among His people through the Holy Spirit without destroying them.

What relevance does David’s experience with the Ark have for us?  Perhaps it is that like him, we must come to recognize, fully accept, and deal with the wrathful side of God.  It is common for modern-day Christians, in their zeal to present God in the most attractive terms, to ignore or minimize the fact that He has a terrifying side that insists on keeping the reality of sin and judgment vividly in our consciousness.  If we succumb to the temptation to minimize the presence of evil and sin in this fallen world, we cheapen what it cost God to bridge the gap between His holiness and our captivity to sin.  Without the application of what Christ did, God has no choice but to exercise His wrathful judgment on sin.  God’s love and mercy can overcome the effects of sin only when we fully acknowledge it to be what it is and confess that because of His inviolable holiness it separates us from God.

Thanks be to God that under the New Covenant of the blood of Christ, God’s holiness is no longer embodied in an untouchable box of death, but now makes its redemptive dwelling within us.  What a terrifyingly wonderful manifestation of God’s grace!

image: By Domenico Gargiulo – http://entertainment.webshots.com/photo/2276876770037029906rWGmjt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2291904

30.1971##S (1)

A. Thornhill’s The Chosen People: Chapter 1: “The Missing Link in Election”

 

Summary by C. P. Davis

No, this chapter is not discussing the problems with the political election cycle in the United States. Instead, A. Chadwick Thornhill focuses upon the doctrine of election, and how the Jewish mindset most certainly affected its formulation in the New Testament. Specifically, Thornhill narrows his topic to the way in which the apostle Paul’s concept of election was formed. Thornhill begins by discussing the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), and how certain elements of this theory should be retained. His main contention is that most scholars who deal with the NPP never deal directly with the concept of election. It is his goal to remedy this situation.

Thornhill begins by defining three theories of election: “national and unconditional,” “national and cooperative,” and “remnant-oriented and conditional.” The first theory develops election along the lines of a once-saved-always saved mentality. Specifically, it views the election of Israel as a holistic enterprise, whereby God chose this people for salvation. Anyone who is an Israelite is therefore saved by the nature of his covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Supporters of this theory (e.g., Sanders) often seek to adjust the common view that salvation in Israel was based upon works-righteousness. The second theory views Israel’s soteriological position as a tension between two poles: obedience and election. This is the least clearly defined category of the three. The third position argues that unconditional election of the nation Israel was never the point of the covenant. Instead, by studying Qumranic material and Pseudepigraphical works, it becomes clear that a conditional view of the covenant was the predominant Jewish view. Developing this third theory, then, is the major focus of the present book.

51djmwg4wpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_    The first major question addressed deals with how Second Temple Jews viewed their election. This is an important area of study because it leads to a second question: how might this understanding have affected the apostle Paul’s writings? He was, after all, a Jew of this time period. Thornhill believes that it is inappropriate to assume that Paul necessarily stood against the tide of all Jewish thought, just because he argued against some ideas. It is illogical to assume that due to a few instances of disagreement, Paul would have denied all of his Jewish background. Indeed, if this concept were taken to its logical conclusion then one would have to argue that Paul stood even against the Old Testament! At the same time, Thornhill is cautious not to overstate this point. He is clearly aware that Jewish thought at this time was rather amorphous. Nevertheless, there are certain widespread characteristics that he will seek to illustrate in subsequent chapters.

With this in mind, our author establishes a criterion by which he will proceed: each work from Second Temple Judaism that he will analyze will be addressed on its own merits and only then will it be compared with Paul’s material. The hope is that this methodology will offer a necessary safeguard against reading a preconceived notion of Paul’s theology into surveyed material and vice versa. The goal is to develop a picture of the zeitgeist of the Second Temple Jewish world, in relation to the doctrine of election. This goal is to be reached by analyzing three sources: the Dead Sea scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha. In each case, an attempt will be made to expose those ideas that seem to be held by a broad sector of the Jewish world.

Summary of Love of God: A Canonical Model: Chapter 9: “Who Is the God Who Loves?”

Summary by Gary Yates 

In chapter nine of The Love of God: A Canonical Model, Peckham summarizes the five key aspects of the foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love that he has developed in the book and then focuses on key questions concerning God’s essence in light of how he loves. God’s love is volitional, evaluative, emotional, foreconditional, and ideally reciprocal. These features highlight the “give-and-take relationality” that exists in human-divine love. God’s choice to love means that he allows himself to be affected by the disposition or actions of his creatures and to engage with humans in profoundly emotional ways. God’s love for humans is undeserved but not without conditions in that it is only those who reciprocate God’s love that enjoy a particular love relationship with him for eternity. God works toward a bilateral love relationship with humans but does not unilaterally determine who will reciprocate his love. Such coercion is incompatible with genuinely loving relationships.

Is Love God’s Essence?

51WwYweH7VL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The bulk of this final chapter focuses on ontological issues that are key to determining what God must be like if he loves in this particular manner. The first of these issues is the relationship of divine love to God’s essence. In light of 1 John 4:8, 16 (“God is love”), many have postulated that love is God’s essence. Because of the mysteries associated with divine essence, Peckham takes a more cautious approach in asserting, “God’s character is love, and God is essentially loving” (p. 252). All that God is and does is congruent with divine love. The members of the Trinity have enjoyed an eternal love relationship with each other, but this “essential intra-trinitarian love relation does not extend to creatures” (p. 253). God is not morally or ontologically bound to love his creatures but voluntarily chooses to do so. This explanation preserves divine freedom in contrast to pantheistic conceptions that view God’s love for the world and his creatures as necessary to his being.

Divine Love and Perfection

Peckham next examines how the foreconditional-reciprocal model of divine love accords with a proper view of God’s perfection. Some forms of the transcendent-voluntarist model often view God’s enjoyment of the world as a defect that impinges on divine perfection, but Peckham argues that while God is ontologically independent from the world and self-sufficient, he also finds enjoyment in the world’s goodness and takes displeasure in evil. Because of his abundant love for humans, God has “voluntarily bound his own interests to the best interests of his creatures” so that the quality of his own life is interwoven with the course of human history (p. 256).

God has also extended significant creaturely freedom to humans, allowing them the choice to reciprocate his love or not to do so. The fact that humans act in ways that either positively or negatively impact God reflects that God himself is not the causal agent of these actions. God’s will is not “unilaterally efficacious,” evidenced by the ways in which “free beings actually affect the course of history, often in ways that are not in accordance with God’s ideal decisions” (p. 258). Peckham provides a helpful distinction between God’s “ideal will,” referring to what would occur if all agents acted in perfect conformity to his desires, and his “effective will,” which refers to what God evaluatively wills after taking into account the wills and actions of his significantly free creatures. God allowed Adam and Eve to not obey his ideal will in favor of granting them this creaturely freedom. The death of Jesus was “God’s will,” not in the sense that he desired it to happen but because it was part of his larger plan of salvation. We clearly see numerous instances in Scripture where God’s desires are not fulfilled (cf. Ps 81:11-14; Isa 66:4; Ezek 18:23; Matt 23:37-39; Lk 7:30), and such occurrences are necessary as a means of securing genuinely reciprocal divine-human love relationships.

Peckham’s distinction between “ideal will” and “effective will” contrasts to how more deterministic models distinguish between “desired will” and “decretive will.” In this, God genuinely desires that all be saved but has not decreed that all would be saved. Peckham raises the question, “If God’s will is unilaterally efficacious and God wants to save everyone, why does he not do so?” (p. 262). God ought to be able to determine every individual to accept his love and be saved, but the reality is that God acting in this way would be incompatible with the biblical ideas of significant human freedom and the bilateral nature of divine-human love.

Divine Love, Passibility, and God’s Constancy

Peckham also addresses how passibility and constancy can both exist within God’s person. Reiterating from his fuller discussion in chapter six, Peckham affirms that God is affected by the disposition and actions of his creatures and argues that explaining the strongly emotional language used to describe God in the Bible as anthropomorphic lacks a clear canonical rationale. God’s relational nature is reflected in the give-and-take aspects of his interaction with humans as he calls for response to his initiatives and then relents, rewards, or punishes based on what those responses are. Peckham is careful to qualify that his view of passibility does not deny divine immutability when understood as the constancy of God’s character and promissory purposes. God has voluntarily chosen to enter into the joys and sufferings of the world and does so “evaluatively and voluntarily but not essentially” (p. 269). God allows himself to be affected by others while also maintaining “ontological independence from the world.”

Divine Love and Theodicy

Lastly, Peckham examines divine love in relationship to the issue of theodicy and argues that the foreconditional-reciprocal model has advantages over the other models in outlining why there is evil in the world if God is good, all-powerful, and all-loving. The determinism of the transcendent-voluntarist model asserts that God predestines all evil but does no evil himself in that God wills these actions for different reasons. Peckham contends that this perspective is unsuccessful in attempting to avoid making God culpable for evil, asking how God could be good if he could have unilaterally willed to prevent evil without hindering his purposes and why God did not unilaterally determine that he be fully glorified before his creatures without evil. The pantheism of the imminent-experientialist model goes in a different direction, positing that God is not responsible for evil because he was unable to prevent it. This view offers an impoverished view of God and also raises the question of whether or not evil will ever come to an end.

The foreconditional-reciprocal model explains that God is omnipotent but that possession of all power does not require the exercise of all power. God freely grants power to other agents whose choices he does not unilaterally determine. God’s voluntary allowance of evil testifies to his loving nature. Since love must be free and cannot be determined, the necessary context for genuine love requires the possibility of evil and the rejection of God’s ideal will. Peckham writes, “God allowed evil, while passionately despising it, because to exclude its possibility would exclude love” (p. 274). Though creatures suffer greatly, God suffers more, and the voluntary suffering of God on the cross ensures that evil will be eradicated in the eschaton and that the universe will continue in “unceasing love and uninterrupted goodness.”