Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Degrading Nature of Popular Theology

I'm consistently astounded by the ridiculousness of people's devotion, not to the Bible (oh, if that were only true for those that so often profess it), but to theology that is either created in their own mind, or one that is based on extrapolating dogmas from bits of Greek philosophy and Biblical verses strung together out of context (or sometimes just downplayed or exaggerated). Honestly it just makes me sad to see so many people eventually disenfranchised by a theology not only unable to reconcile real life events with their doctrines, but also unable to explain the very nature of their doctrines in ways that do not employ a string of logical fallacies.

Mostly I find myself in conflict with people who follow a John Piper version of neoreformism. Piper has amazing skills to mobilize people and deliver an emotion evoking message. But largely I think that he is a fear monger...one who exclaims that we should fall on our faces and repent because God would be justified if he dropped a building on us. One person I know exclaimed that we cannot understand God's love until we understand His wrath.

This issue presses into thoughts about the future, the validity of talking to God, but most of all...what the character and attributes of God actually are, as directly written about in the Scriptures or literally exemplified in Scripture, which should be our founding 'tradition' and revelation concerning God and His history with humanity.

OK, so why do I think that Reformed Theology is ridiculous? Because it has to pass off certain scriptures as merely anthropomorphisms concerning God and thus not literal descriptions of God's character or actions. So, they will play down verses like, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." But emphasize verses like, "There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God." These two verses are easily reconciled if you take them in context...but to the reformed theist, God is the only one who can make you seek Him (ie...God makes you seek God), and only God can make you pray things that are in His will (ie...God prays to Himself through you).

God is loving: As my friend stated, you can only understand God's love if you understand His wrath. That seems in stark contrast to the Bible that states that it is God's kindness that leads to repentance. Reform theists seem to advocate a God of wrath and retribution for our sinfulness...one that causes tsunamis to kill thousands, one that pulls buildings over on people, and one that justifies the slaughter of people practicing things not Christianity. They seem to say that if we only understood his wrath against our sin and why he stands ready to topple buildings on people...that we would see the love behind His reconciling us to Himself via Christ. Yeah...so loving.

God is forgiving: Yes...but not for you. Reformed theist believe that you cannot seek God (as I stated earlier), because your nature is so corrupt that it is impossible. Therefore God Himself has to change your heart and make you come to Him. There can be none of your own choice in the matter, because then there is something about your salvation that you could boast about. So...God alone draws people to Himself...which means that only those who are saved were the only ones that God bothered to draw. After all, if God is doing all the work of salvation and God is all powerful, then why are not all people saved?

5 comments:

  1. To address one of your thoughts:

    "As my friend stated, you can only understand God's love if you understand His wrath. That seems in stark contrast to the Bible that states that it is God's kindness that leads to repentance...."

    Kindness is only understood in contrast to unkindness. If everybody in a kids' class gets a lollipop - except me - I should be upset: it seems the teacher was unkind. But if no one ever gets a lollipop, I won't go home and cry to Mom, "The teacher was mean because I didn't get candy!"

    So if the Bible says God's kindness leads us to repentance -- and if you agree with this statement, which I know you do -- then we may agree that God is kind as opposed to being unkind. Some are saved; some are lost. Some are shown kindness; some are shown punishment.

    We only understand kindness (God's love), then, as a polar opposite of unkindness (God's wrath). And we will not understand God's love then unless we understand his wrath. It is recognizing what we are saved from.

    A person driving mindlessly on a road is not as thankful as the driver of the car who realizes the road is actually a bridge a few hundred feet above water.

    The second thought I was thinking when I read this short excerpt is that it is not our own mind which leads us to repentance; rather, it is God's kindness. I do understand your point, and to show how I would think of this verse (being quite Reformed myself), I cannot think that this verse means simply that we look at a wonderful God and have a feeling of thankfulness for his wonder. It truly is God's kindness (his attribute, not mine) which leads me (he leads, I do not) to repentance (ahh yes, that which other Reformer friends of mine will hate: repentance is my willingness to agree, brought about by God, but performed by myself).

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  2. The point is not to debate of the nature of His kindness. The point is reformism's emphasis of God's wrath against humanity, and the nature of that wrath. And additionally the nature of God's value of us.

    Reformed theology's argument is very clear that God does not need us, and in the strictest sense that may be true. However, what is described by reformism is not an argument of 'need'...instead it is an argument of whether or not God even wants us or cares about us at all...or if He barely cares for just a few, i.e. "I'd stamp you out of existence had I not chosen you" kinds of arguments as Piper states often. And then that is his argument concerning God's great love for us, that He didn't stamp us out of existence. And frankly that is not a argument for love in the slightest...though if you listen to Piper's messages, he often exclaims it.

    And this is where the point is lost. The Bible and the history mentioned therein speaks of God's continuous efforts to reestablish the relationship that was broken. Even in the places where God allowed Israel to be stricken, not only were they always warned, but 'punishment' always came in the hope that His people would come to understand their disobedience and need for Him.

    And further, regardless of what you personally believe, Brooks...reformed theism doesn't believe that you can choose to accept God's salvation, or have any willingness to agree. Perhaps you don't actually believe in reformism, but rather just favor a number of their theologies or perspectives. But your beliefs are not in question.

    The primary problem at hand is a theology that is set equal to Scripture (or one set in an essentially superseding role), one that is extrapolated from philosophy and exaggerating verses out of context, or one that takes Scripture out of its historical context as well (not to pass it off, but to understand why something was written about). This is the problem of reformed theism, and systematic theology in general.

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  3. I would agree with Brooks' last statement (and I think Evan would agree) that there clearly is a part we play in choosing to respond to God's kindness. God, through His kindness, leads us to repent, but we make the choice of actually responding to that leading by repenting.

    However, Brooks, you mentioned that it is agreed (among you and Evan, and I agree also) that God is kind as opposed to unkind. But then you equated God's wrath with unkindness. If those two things are true, then it would follow that there must be no wrath in God, as that is something (unkindness) that is opposed to His nature.

    In the same way, the next statement about our understanding kindness (God's love) only as a polar opposite of unkindness (God's wrath), is to say that we only understand that which is God's nature (love) as a polar opposite of what is not His nature (unkindness, or wrath), but which still somehow comes from Him.

    My point is simply that this is a contradictory idea, and I don't believe there is anything in God's nature or actions that is opposed to himself (both on logical grounds and as demonstrated by Jesus' statement that "a house divided against itself cannot stand").

    Of course, I do believe there is such a thing as wrath that God speaks about in the Bible, but I don't believe it can or will be exercised in a way that contradicts his very nature, which is love.

    Rather, if God is love, and nothing short of what is holy/pure love (or made holy/pure) can stand before Him, then wrath is a natural consequence of rejecting love (whether ultimately rejecting God, who is Love, or choosing something other than the way of love in a particular situation).

    But as for the idea that God's kindness is only understood in contrast to unkindness, I think that is flipped around. The Bible talks about how it is the light that makes us aware of the darkness. Until or unless we see light, we don't recognize darkness (or what is kept in darkness) for what it is.

    I do think that experiencing God's kindness and love does something to us because it causes us to see the darkness that we are in and, hopefully, if we respond appropriately, to repent of our own skewed mindsets and ways apart from Him, and to embrace Him and His incredible love and mercy.

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  4. Okay, I've digested this post and I'm mostly concerned with the paragraph about the love of God. It isn't "reformed theists" who advocate a God of wrath and retribution for our sinfulness (which you say is in stark contrast to the Bible), it's God Himself in His Word that advocates that very thing. It is even discussed in the context of the very passage about kindness that you pulled from context, namely Romans 2:3-5

    "Do you suppose, O man--you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself--that you will escape the JUDGMENT of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up WRATH for yourself on the day of WRATH when God's righteous judgment will be revealed."

    God's kindness is explicitly linked to His patience and forbearance, withholding His judgment, and allowing a window for repentance, which if not accepted or abused incurs wrath.

    "And then that is [Piper's] argument concerning God's great love for us, that He didn't stamp us out of existence."

    That's an under-sell. Being stamped out of existence is annihilationism which would be a sinner's dream. Sinners deserve hell which is much worse. And what you're saying is Piper's argument for the love of God is not really his argument, it's the Bible's argument. Romans 5:8, "God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." So, there's two crucial components of God's love: the death of Christ AND the fact that He died even though we were sinners who deserve hell (Rom. 3:23). Understanding what it means to be a sinner and what God thinks of sin and how He will ultimately deal with sin is at the heart of the gospel. Your friend Brooks said it right...it is understanding what we are saved from...namely, the wrath of God.

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  5. Perhaps we should expand the verses some more to see the context.

    Romans 2:1-8
    “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.”

    It is interesting that you point out the context of this verse, because again, this very verse contains a contradiction in terms of reformed theology again. But we'll go to what this verse doesn't say first and deconstruct the verse. Let's start with the non-church-tradition etymology of the word "wrath" in English. Wrath, outside of the influence of the traditional-church's influence (retribution for sin), is synonymous with "fury" or "intense anger". This definition can include an action done out of anger, it does not necessarily mean that. Seen in the light of how the English word is defined you get a better place to start understanding the verses in question.

    Secondly, the context of the use of "wrath" historically in the Bible text. If you go through and read the context of every use of the translation 'wrath' you quickly find two things, 1. that using, as a synonym, "intense anger" doesn't change the meaning in context, and 2. that in every case it was in response to something more specific than sin in general (i.e. in response to a specific action or at least a sin or nature that scripture names). God wasn't pissed off at us in general, and isn't portrayed that way. Instead God is show as getting very angry (having wrath) toward specific issues that the Jews, or the Church, were doing.

    Thirdly, in the context of the verse in Romans Paul was speaking about the Roman church considering themselves as better than all the other people that wallow in their own sin and rejection of God. They were judging those people, and Paul pointed out the facts of the matter, that there is a day of God's anger coming when each person will be judged by Him, which considering many people's rejection of God will indeed be a day deserving of anger...for what loving father wants to fully expel his child (or children) into death?

    And additionally...this verse points out an understanding that reformism rejects, which creates a contradictory statement. We store up God's anger against us because of actions that we do...being stubborn and unrepentant. If, as reformed theism believes, God chooses those who will be saved and He draws them into salvation, then how can a person who is saved store up 'wrath' for himself, if 'wrath' is actually "retribution for sin" (as the traditional church defines 'wrath)? Even more, wrath by its very nature is an emotional response to something happening, which if God is truly immutable, then He can't be angered by us.

    Concerning the 'window for repentance' I have to point out that in reformed theism a person is too corrupt to accept the action of repentance, and thus requires God to make them repent. If man in sin cannot respond to God without God making him respond, how can God hold our lack of repentance against us? Clearly if we are sinful, we are still separated from Him by necessity, but that isn't what we are talking about here. How can God hold lack of a specific action against us, if only God can generate that response in us? That is a contradiction.

    So, perhaps God withholds judgment and his anger when He sees that His people are making progress in the right direction, as is evidenced in a hundred verses across the Hebrew Scriptures. It is because of God's love for us, the people who He wants authentic and reciprocal relationships with, that He chooses to stave off His anger and disappointment. But it should also be clear that God is angry because we separate ourselves from a relationship with Him that He wants, or a relationship that isn't as it should be with Him. It is NOT anger and wrath merely because sin exists, or because we are in sin.

    And I should be able to use cliches and colloquialisms such as "stamp us out of existence" without you accusing the idea of annihilationism, because that serves as nothing more than a diversion from the point on your part. And here you are yet again putting Piper's idea that God not killing us where we stand is a demonstration of God's love as something the Bible portrays, which it doesn't. And the scripture you quote doesn't suggest that either...so you have to attach that meaning to it.

    Romans 3:21-31
    "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law."

    Romans 5:6-13
    "For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned--for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law."

    Did the Scriptures say that sinners deserve hell? Do the scriptures ever specifically and directly say that sinners deserve hell? Or is that merely a reasoned analogy? God will render to each according to his deeds, and separation from God is hell, and even though there is no place that says it...we see places that talk about those who deserve a punishment, and then we merely equate that with hell?

    Josh is right when he points out that without light it is darkness that has no meaning, not the other way around. If God was not loving us, then His anger would have no meaning. It is not by God's wrath that we understand His love...it is because of His love that we understand His wrath against being separated from Him, or His anger because of our disobedience. If you start with the wrong premise...and develop the wrong analogies based on it, then you misrepresent the character of the Living God to those around you. And in that, how many people do you discourage and disenfranchise with this, so that they have an added human barrier to point to...one that was delivered to them by you.

    Is there a consequence to our sin and disobedience? Certainly! But those consequences do not define the character of God. Rather they define OUR character...and God is quick to point out that He does love us so much to spend all that He has to save us from our broken relationship with Him and put us in a reconciled state with Him. And it is this kindness that will convict our hearts and bring about repentance in our heart...NOT the idea that God is ready to punish us. It is poor for reformists to equate natural consequences of a fallen state with God-authored and God-delivered punishment.

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