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February 11, 2009

As you may know, I decided to read through both of the Finding God in The Shack books released this month (two books, two authors, one title). Last week I reviewed the first of these (see: Finding God in the Shack (1)) and in a day or two I will review the second. But first, I wanted to share a few quotes from the book.

It is not lost on me that the majority of the people who vocalized objections to The Shack were Calvinists (Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Yours Truly, etc). Randal Rauser and Roger Olson noted this as well and both make a point of refuting some components of Calvinistic theology in their books. Rauser, a Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary, touches on Calvinism several times, but does so primarily under the heading of “The Biggest Problem in the Universe”—a chapter that deals with theodicy (the justice and goodness of God in the face of suffering). This is, after all, one of the main themes of The Shack and one whose treatment offended many Calvinist readers. Unfortunately, Rauser’s portrayal of Calvinism is, in many ways, just plain wrong. It is offensive and almost libelous at times. I am a Calvinist and have been for many years. Never have I heard anyone claim what Rauser says to be true of Calvinism.

Here are a few examples. I have taken the liberty of bolding a few of the most outrageous statements.

*****

Our first pass at theodicy will consider the possibility that God is not all-loving. While this may come as a surprise to many Christians, this is the position of a major theological tradition called Calvinism. … To be more specific, Calvinists believe that God is perfect in his love, but he chooses not to show this love to all his creatures.

To begin with, the Calvinist believes that God controls all events perfectly, including free human choices. That is, God gives us the desires that we freely fulfill, both good and bad. (Other Christians disagree and think instead that while God can know what we will do in advance, he cannot make us do it if we are truly free.) As a result, Calvinists believe that God could have made the world such that Adam and Eve would never have fallen. It follows that Adam and Eve sinned because God gave them the free desires to sin. Likewise, the Little Ladykiller [the villain of The Shack] sinned because God gave him the will to sin. Everyone who sins does so because God has formed his or her character to do so. As Paul tersely put it, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18). So the reason there is evil in the world is simple: though perfectly loving, God wants there to be some evil!

This Calvinist view raises an obvious question: why would a perfectly loving God desire evil in the world? In order to explain this, the Calvinist denies what many Christians assume: that God loves all his creatures equally. Rather, God’s ultimate concern is to manifest his glory most fully. Therefore, God is concerned to ensure that creation provides the best opportunity for God to display his magnificent attributes. … [A]dversity within creation provides an opportunity for God to display his leadership qualities.

In the midst of adversity God is able to manifest his mercy and love to those creatures he has decreed to choose the good. At the same time, he manifests his wrath and justice to those creatures he has decreed to choose the evil (Romans 9:22-23). Through all good and evil, God’s glory is more fully on display than if he had willed a creation where everyone did his will perfectly. One final point: the same reasoning that applies to the present age applies in eternity as well. There, too, rebellion must be present so God’s fullest display of attributes can be manifest. As such, Calvinists believe that God decrees that some people would reject the offer of salvation so God can rightly damn them eternally and thereby ensure that his perfect wrath and justice are both forever on display.

I confess that I am one of many people who find Calvinism not only unpalatable but nearly incomprehensible. Let’s start with God’s glory. I don’t accept that the only way to have a high appreciation of God’s glory is by seeing God crush human rebellion. There have been many great leaders in history who led their people in peacetime. Couldn’t God have fully displayed his attributes through peaceful rule as well? Indeed, Calvinism is in danger of Manichaeism, the view that good and evil are equal and necessary opposites so that good can only be known to the extent that evil exists. But my biggest problem is with Calvinism’s view of God’s love. Contrary to the Calvinist claim that God only loves some creatures and hates others, I believe that God loves all people (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).

*****

My reaction when reading all of this was, if not anger, real frustration. I hate to think that thousands of people will read such an inaccurate, uninformed, fictitious view of Calvinism (and this by an author who has some credibility by virtue of his position as a Professor of Theology). Even where Rauser is correct, his words often lack the charitable nuance we might well hope for. But in so many ways he is really, really wrong. Not surprisingly, he does not quote any sources; I know of none that would support his statements.

I thought of writing an article to refute some of the worst of these statements. But then I found myself thinking about R.C. Sproul’s book Getting the Gospel Right. Here Sproul exhorts Christians to be careful in the way they portray what other people believe. The context of the book is a defense of the gospel against Catholicism and he says, rightly I think, that Christians often caricature Roman Catholic theology, not taking the time to find what the Church really teaches. It is too simplistic to say “Protestantism is about grace and Catholicism is about works.” I know I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes it is easier to take the little tidbits we have heard from others, assume they are fact, and build a case. But I think we owe it to others to truly understand before we determine that we know the facts.

So when I saw this nonsense that Rauser had passed off as fact, I guess I saw an opportunity to ensure that when I speak out against Arminianism or Open Theism or Catholicism or any other area of poor or false theology, I do so with grace and I do so only after ensuring that I know what I am speaking about. There have been too many times when I’ve failed to do just that.

February 09, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed The Christian Lover by Michael Haykin, a collection of historical love letters sent from one Christian lover to another. Despite feeling like a bit of a voyeur, spying on private communications, I enjoyed reading these letters, and highly recommended the book. But it got me thinking about my relationship with my wife and whether she and I will leave behind any such tangible evidence of our love for one another. We have a few letters from our courtship days, little love notes that we’d sooner die than have anyone else read, but notes that we can’t bring ourselves to throw away. I remember my mother once saying that she and my father once exchanged such letters and we were free to read them…once she and dad were dead. But these letters I sent to Aileen were from our pre-digital days. This was before we both had email accounts. Sure I still write her cards on occasion and seek to share my heart with her on pen and paper, but more often than not, if she and I are far apart, I turn to email.

I wonder what we may be losing in a digital world. Are love letters of this kind becoming relics of an age gone by? Will tomorrow’s young lovers leave behind any “hard copy” evidence of their love? Or will it all be in bits and bytes, emails, text messages and chats? When my hard drive crashes or my cell phone gets lost, am I losing all this evidence of my love for my wife and hers for me?

Is there something inherent in putting ink to paper that makes it more valuable than perhaps communicating by putting finger to keyboard and sending off an email. I began to wonder, what might this book look like in twenty or thirty years as a generation of digital natives grows older? What might we read in The Christian Lover II: Dispatches from the Digital Age?

Well, here is a chapter sharing the letters of John and Kate MacDonald, who were missionaries to China. They are both eighteen now, and these love letters will be exchanged in just a couple of years. This is an excerpt from The Christian Lover II, to be published in 2029:

*****

Following the traditions of the time, John asked permission from Katie’s father Frank before asking Katie to marry him. He did so by text message.

John to Frank:

“I can ask Katie to marry me? I luv her”

Frank to John:

“k”

Records of text messages shows what an important occasion this was in the lives of these two lovers. Just five days later, the morning after she had accepted his invitation, John sent this to Katie:

“kate, had a great time on sat. can’t wait to see ya again soon. byeeeee! ps sorry the ring was 2 big.”

Kate’s response showed how much their relationship was built upon humor and how much joy she found in him.

“lolz! love ya lots. luv teh ring!!!!”

*****

OK, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, I admit. But I do wonder. In all likelihood, such communication would have been quickly erased, lost forever when the cell phone ran out of memory. After all, who keeps endless archives of text messages? In this case maybe it isn’t a bad thing to see it lost. But what about those heartfelt, lengthy, deep emails a husband sends to his wife when he is traveling? They may get filed away in a “Keep” folder, but for how long? How will they be rediscovered 100 or 200 years later? What happens when the hard drive gets corrupted and the file destroyed?

Just the other day I was talking to a friend and asking if, in days past, a person had ever gone to his desk, taken out a pen and writing paper, written “LOL” on that paper, sealed it up, put a stamp on it, and run it out to a mailbox. Probably not. Yet every day I seem to receive an email or two that has no more content than that. And maybe I send one occasionally myself. Is there something inherently light, “unweighty,” about digital communication?

Roy Rosenzweig of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va has this to say: “The disappearance of letters as a source for historians is a huge loss; letters have traditionally been vital to some kinds of historical work — especially political and intellectual history.” I think love letters have been vital for children to learn about their parents and grandchildren to learn about their ancestors. And I wonder if we will be leaving anything behind for the generations that will follow us. We will leave plenty of digital evidence of our existence. But will we leave that heart-to-heart, husband-to-wife evidence that has educated and comforted those who wished to know about their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers and grandfathers?

What a loss it will be if a lack of evidence means that there can never be The Christian Lover II.

January 17, 2009

Here is some good, light fare for a Saturday afternoon.

A few weeks ago we found, on sale, the complete Pixar collection (not including Wall-E). We have had fun going back in time and watching each of these movies. I still remember going to see Toy Story when it was in the theaters and marveling at the brilliant animation—that kind of computer animation was completely new at the time. And then came A Bug’s Life which was rather a disappointment. Toy Story 2 was next and probably ranks as my favorite of all the Pixar films. Monsters Inc. is a close second—a really incredible movie that shows some amazing animation, even by today’s standards (they managed to animate individual hairs in the bodies of those furry monsters). And the series has continued with one great film after another.

The other day I was talking to some people and comparing notes on which was the best of these movies. I thought I’d put it to the vote and make a poll out of it.

Do note that if you are reading this via RSS, you’ll have to click through to the site to actually answer. All voting is anonymous…

January 11, 2009

Those of us who are participating in the “Memorizing Scripture Together” program have come to the close of our second long passage. Those who have followed along from the beginning should now have stored away in their hearts and minds both Psalm 8 and Psalm 103. To those who have managed to do one or both, congratulations! I told you that you weren’t too old…

I know there are some who have not quite finished with the passages. Hence, I am going to declare this a transition week meaning that there will be no new long passage. Instead, I’d encourage you to practice (and practice again) the two Psalms we’ve memorized. And if you need a bit of extra time to perfect them, that is what this week is all about.

Tune in next Sunday and I’ll announce our next long passage. It’s going to be a good one…

If you’d like to participate beginning next week, just add your name to the list and you’ll receive an email on Sunday…





If you need some more encouragement to memorize Scripture, you may be interested in this recent sermon by John Piper. He titled it “If My Words Abide in You.” It deals with the necessity of storing up God’s Word in our hearts. It would be well worth your time listening to (or reading through). You can find the link here.

Here is part of the message’s summary: “What does this mean to have Jesus’ words “abiding in us”? More than memorizing Scripture, it means that Jesus’ words take root in us—they find a home in us—and bear the fruit of faith and holiness. But what does this have to do with memorizing Scripture? The broad biblical answer is that the Holy Spirit awakens life and faith and personal transformation through the word of God in our conscious minds. And anything that brings the word of God into connection with our minds will work to strengthen faith and bring about the fruit of transformed lives—and not just our own, but the lives of others also. Memorizing Scripture makes this kind of connection between God’s word and our minds more constant, deep, and transforming. Nothing else can take its place.”

January 07, 2009

A few days ago somebody posted at Amazon a rather unique review of my book. Though he gave the book only one star out of five, I was far from upset or outraged when I read it. I was more perplexed. In fact, I didn’t quite know what to do with the review and thought maybe I’d post it here to see if someone can explain it to me. Because, frankly, I’m confused.

The author, going by the name Arktophylax, posted it under the heading “Horrible Self-Congratulatory Conformist Liberalism.” Here is what he wrote:


The author attempts at transcending pseudointellectualism but is unable to discern what constitutes orthodox Christian spirituality and his own distorted, incomplete psychological development and off-putting androgyne tendencies. There was a distinct lack of appropriately masculine tone to the whole book sure to alienate those orthodox Christians who still believe in a “manly Christianity” instead of the New-Age, gnostic, nihilist revision of Jesus. Overall, the theology reminds one of a limp-wristed, liberalized neo-deism with heavy doses of left-wing psychology. In all harshness, a most infelicitous theological scribbling by a liberal solipsist confusing his own mentality with that of normative Christianity. There is definite potential in this author if he outgrows the comfortable belief-systems of liberal-modernity he is still unconsciously enshackled to in his personality.

Addendum: Confusing one’s own ego with revelatory capacity is the fall of religion. This is a common symptom among today’s “post-modern” Christians—the insipid, bloodless psychological atmosphere of little boys self-complacently playing video games, little girls playing tea-party, or, the air of laid-back coffee-houses, rather than the harsh tragedian desert where Jesus taught a new revolutionary way of self-denial and self-sacrifice. A person can read a book and tell whether the author has tasted noble suffering or whether the author has led a modernist consumerist life of easy self-contentedness and egocentric domesticity; whether they use their intellect to play intellectual games or offer blood-bought truths, and nobly-endured suffering is the key to Christianity. The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity by Leon J. Podles comes highly recommended in this context.

January 05, 2009

Today I want to step into dangerous territory and discuss free will. This is a massive topic with implications that stretch to almost every part of the Christian faith. I want to look at just one small part of it. I want to deal with a statement I’ve heard and read time and again. I came across this most recently when reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. “Free will,” he says, “though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” If God had not given us free will, such people say, we could not truly have loved him. Our love would be the love of robots, of automatons, love that would be neither genuine nor sincere. It would be a meaningless, forced love which in reality would be no love at all. This is what we are told. I want to suggest today that the Bible does not tell us one way or another. This may be a valid inference, but it is one that is not explicit in Scripture and, hence, one we should be hesitant to declare with great confidence.

I am writing today knowing that I could be wrong and inviting you to show me if that is, indeed, the case.

My line of reasoning will go like this. If this statement is true, it casts doubt on the manner and sincerity of the Christian’s love of God in heaven. Therefore, if this statement is untrue of the heavenly man, it may also be untrue of the earthly man.

It was Augustine of Hippo who first described the four states of man. They are most easily understood when put into the form of a table like this one:

nonposse.jpg

Adam and Eve were in what Thomas Boston calls a state of “primitive integrity,” able to choose whether they would sin or not sin. They were able to sin but were also able to not sin. The choice lay before them and we know which path they chose. Adam’s decision cast man into a state of “entire depravity” in which people can no longer make such a choice. Man is now able to sin and unable to not sin. There is not a person on earth who can go a lifetime without sinning; neither is there one who would wish to. Our very natures have become sinful. However, those who are born again, who are regenerated by the Spirit of God, are in a state of “begun recovery” (again, according to Boston) and every moment of every day face a choice. They are able to sin but are also able not to sin. Experience and observation shows that Christians sometimes make one choice and sometimes make another. Their new natures give them the ability to choose to not sin, but the old man constantly fights back, pushing to choose what is sinful. But all the while Christians look forward to the day of “consummate happiness” in heaven when they will be able to not sin and unable to sin. God will grant them the ability to not sin and will remove any vestige of desire to sin. This is one of the great promises of heaven, that “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).”

It is this final part of the grid that causes me to wonder if our love truly had to be entirely free for it to be genuine. After all, as Christians we look with great anticipation to the day when our sin will be taken away and we will no longer even be able to sin. At this time will our love for God be more genuine or less genuine? Will we love God more or less than we love him now? When we read Scripture and, with great anticipation look to the passages that describe heaven, we can only conclude that our love for God today is only a shadow of the love we will have for him in that day. And yet it will be a love that is restricted by our sinless natures—a love that will not allow us to ever sin or even consider sin.

As I understand it, Augustine would agree with me here. He would say that the ability to sin is not essential to free will. After all, God is free but without the ability to sin. The angels are free but without any ability to sin. And, as we’ve established, we will be free in heaven, but not free to sin.

All of this to say that I simply do not find that we need to believe that the only love worth having is a love that can choose not to love.

But feel free to tell me if and how I’m wrong here…

December 27, 2008

Christians love their conferences. Calvinists love their conferences. Put the two together and, well, you’ve got an awful lot of events in any given year. Many major ministries offer their annual conferences along with a selection of regional conferences; churches offer small conferences designed to serve a local constituency; ministries like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition offer bi-annual conferences designed to attract and coordinate pastors or ministry leaders from around the nation and around the world. If you live in the United States, it is likely that you do not have to travel very far to find a great conference in the coming year.

All of this got me wondering: how many conferences do you anticipate attending this year? I’ve changed up the poll on this site so you can vote and let us know how many you’ll be at least attempting to attend.

Do note that if you are reading this via RSS, you’ll have to click through to the site to actually answer. All voting is anonymous…

December 24, 2008

A couple of days ago I was a guest on a radio program, discussing my favorite books from 2008. At one point the host asked what books I am looking forward to reading next year. I thought I’d share just a short list here. This is based only on books that have been announced or that I’ve somehow discovered in my online wanderings.

As you probably know, 2009 marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. Hence we are going to see several Calvin biographies. It is actually surprising how few there are today; I’ve little doubt that this will be remedied next year. So for those of us who are indebted to Calvin but who know little about him, next year should offer a bounty of good resources. I hope to read at least two or three of those biographies.

2009 also marks Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The New York Times says “Throw in the fact that the next president of the United States, like Lincoln, is a former state legislator from Illinois, and an African-American who says he has been reading the writings of the man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and you have, well, Lincoln-mania.” Because his birthday is in February, we can expect several biographies and other resources in the early months of the year. It’s not like we are suffering from a lack of top-notch biographies on Lincoln, but I expect to see the field grow even more crowded. Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln: A Biography looks as if it may be the best of the bunch.

There are two books releasing on almost the same day (and for almost the same price—only $0.01 separates them) titled Finding God in The Shack. I’ll probably read them.

We will undoubtedly see a deluge of good Christian books next year. Some of the ones I am looking forward to are:

  • The Bookends of the Christian Life by Jerry Bridges and Bob Bevington (disclosure: I’ve already read it and written an endorsement for it. It’s a very good book)
  • Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random … Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. by Kevin DeYoung. Of the writing of books dealing with God’s will there is no end; but this one looks both interesting and unique.
  • Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God by Bruce Ware.
  • The Disappearance of God: Dangerous Beliefs in the New Spiritual Openness by Albert Mohler.
  • This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence by John Piper. He waited many years to write this book and I’m looking forward to reading it.

How about you? What books are you looking forward to reading next year?