Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"No ... scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation"

2 Peter 1:19-21

19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Checkmark 2 Peter 1:20 as one of the top ten misused verses in the Bible!

Many preachers toss this verse around like they know what it means. They cite it and move on before anybody has a chance to look very closely at it. It is played like a secret weapon in a game of cards. If two people have a disagreement over a Bible verse and one of them approaches the disagreement like it is some sort of a debate, he will rattle off 2 Peter 1:20. Since he quoted it first, his interpretation in the dispute is deemed correct against his "opponent." If the second person questions how 2 Peter 1:20 is being used, the higher-ground arguer is likely to interrupt, "Don't you accept this verse? Don't you believe the Bible? Do you believe the Bible is inspired?" The meaning behind those questions is, "I believe this verse. You don't. I believe the Bible. You don't. I believe the Bible is inspired. You don't. I believe in God. You don't."

No serious Bible scholar would invoke 2 Peter 1:20 with that meaning; although the comment by the Expositor's Abridged commentary below dances pretty close.

Various views:
Expositor's Abridged Commentary (Zondervan):
No prophecy is to be interpreted by any individual in an arbitrary way--so either the church must interpret prophecy, the interpretation must be that intended by the Holy Spirit, or the individual's interpretation is not to be "private" but according to the analogy of faith.

In other words, according to the Expositor's Abridged Commentary, don't study the Bible alone. Include resources approved by your church... or ask God for divine guidance, consistent with 2 Peter 3:16. Alternatively, it is wrong to keep secret what you have learned. The comment sounds to me like any disagreement about what the Bible says is settled by the preacher or by church edict. Preachers may approve of this meaning because it is usually the preacher who invokes 2 Peter 1:20 against a regular layman Bible reader. Second Peter 1:20 is invoked with the meaning that, in all Bible questions, the preacher is right. I don't think that's what the Expositor's commentator meant; but he does get kind of close to that meaning.
NKJV Study Bible (Nelson)
Although some have taken this phrase to mean that no individual Christian has the right to interpret prophecy for himself or herself, the context and the Greek word for interpretation indicates another meaning for the verse. The Greek word for interpretation can also mean “origin.” In the context of v. 21, it is clear that Peter is speaking of Scripture’s “origin” from God Himself and not the credentials of the one who interprets it. There is no private source for the Bible; the prophets did not supply their own solutions or explanations to the mysteries of life. Rather, God spoke through them; He alone is responsible for what is written in Scripture.
The above interpretation makes a lot of sense. I am personally suspicious of the view that scripture descended directly from God. The way scripture reads to me is that God gave the inspired writers the necessary wisdom to properly supply solutions and explanations to the mysteries of life. Nevertheless, this interpretation has coherence working for it. Oh, and the interpretation rejects the view that whomever cites the verse first is right.
New Interpreter's One vol. Commentary (Abingdon):
He and other traditional Christian teachers appealed to the Scriptures to support their view of the eschatological parousia of Christ. The false teachers dispute this interpretation of Scripture. The author responds that this interpretation is not merely a matter of private, idiosyncratic interpretation, but is confirmed by a revelatory experience that revealed Jesus as God's Son enthroned in heavenly glory, the one who will come as eschatological judge and savior. The church may be assured of seeing the glory of Christ in the future, because the glory of the exalted Christ has already been seen in the past.
This explanation makes a lot of sense in a larger context. There were false teachers who were conscripting scripture to the service of supporting their own pet doctrines. Their false teaching brought themselves personal gain (2 Peter 2:3). In particular, they are "denying the Master who brought them [the teachings?]." The false teaching really smells specific and relates to the nature of Christ.

The motif of twisting scripture to get it to say what you want it to say is consistent with 2 Peter 3:15-16 with respect to how some were twisting what Paul wrote. It is also the meaning of what Luke's Jesus said about the lawyers.

Luke 11:45-52 (reworked with a different thrust by Matthew 23:13, 29-33):
45 One of the lawyers answered him, "Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too."
46 And he said, "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.
47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.
48 So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.
49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, "I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,'
50 so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,
51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.
52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering." (NRSV)
Luke's Jesus had a pointed meaning behind the charge of building the tombs of the prophets. He meant that the lawyers not only entombed the prophets but they also entombed the teachings of the prophets by obfuscating their witness with complex interpretations. It is a back-door method of censoring the prophets after their deaths.

I think the best lesson, the "take-home" at this point, is that 2 Peter 1:20 is not a verse to toss around like an ace-of-spades that wins every argument every time. It is not real clear what it means and is thus not useful as a proof text for anything. Invoking it in a debate is totally lame.

Incidentally, and this is important, Arguing with somebody about the Bible is not the path to sound doctrine. It is a common tactic with the older generations, and might have once been moderately effective. Arguing falls flat with Generation X and Millennials. Find a better way to persuade. Better yet, find a better path to  self satisfaction than by declaring yourself right all the time.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Open Theism, Calvinism and the Millennials

I have a hunch that Open Theism is going to be around for a very long time. I do not know how New Calvinism (John Piper, et. al.) will fair. It depends on how the next couple of generations relate to God. I think today's interest in Calvinism and in Open Theism are driven by generational culture. I will explain.

The New Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition (IVP) has an entry on Open Theism. The writer says, in part,
Our salvation depends on the fact that God cannot change, because his immutability is the assurance that what he has done is guaranteed to remain the same for ever. By overemphasizing relationality at the expense of the divine nature, open theists have failed to appreciate that what they are trying to affirm has always formed an essential part of classical theology. Although much of the traditional Christian theological vocabulary may have been borrowed from ancient philosophy, its substance is more purely biblical than open theists are prepared to allow. For all these reasons, most evangelicals have rejected open theism or openness theology, which remains a minority voice even in circles where it has attracted a certain amount of attention. (G. L. Bray, "Open Theism/Openness Theology," New Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition: Historical and Systematic, IVP, 2016)
There are so many things wrong with the above quote that I cannot confront them all. For this article, I am most interested in G. L. Bray's characterization of Open Theism as a fringe theology that readers can safely dismiss as a teaching that will die on its own without any help from opponents.

On one hand, Bray's thoughts are somewhat discouraging. On the other, he is quite incorrect to present Open Theism as a young movement. The tenants of Open Theism have been around since the fifth century. Calvinism has been around for an equal length of time. Opponents of Open Theism like to characterize the theology as having emerged recently while Calvinism (=Reformed Theology) has been around for much longer and therefore, can be expected to endure longer.

Now, toss into this stew the fact that I have been reading a very excellent book about generations and how their respective cultures affect how people in those groups relate to God.

Beginning with the Baby Boom, Christians in that generation have begun to relate to God differently. As I read through the general descriptions of the generations, it hit me that the generational cultures would motivate members to latch on to Calvinism or Open Theism as theological formulas. Driven by that hunch, I posted a little non-scientific poll on a pro-Open Theism Facebook page.

Note that of the folks who answered the poll, most are from Generation X. Below are some brief descriptions of these generations as explained by the author of the book I am reading.

The book:
Haydn Shaw. Generational IQ. Tyndale, 2015.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) began to approach God in terms of relationship rather than a kind of religion of believing and doing the right things. Says Haydn, "God first reached out to us to bring us close to him." Speaking autobiographically, he said, "I forever gave up trying to please a distant God and began to look at obedience as a way of getting closer to the one who was already close to me" (50-51). Baby Boomers wanted to relate to God. It must be the Boomers that said, "We need to focus less on knowing about God and more on knowing God." Haydn says, "Boomers also put a greater emphasis on experiencing God rather than simply learning doctrine" (51). If God is doing the work of bringing me into fellowship with him, then I may be attracted to a God who unconditionally elected me (Calvinism). Alternatively, I may be attracted to a God who is working to attract me into fellowship (Open Theism). This Baby Boom theology that it is not me who is seeking God but it is God who is seeking me would find its expression in either camp.

We know that Open Theism, as a named theology, emerged in the mid-1980s. In the early '80s is when this Baby Boomer turned 20. That is when my thoughts about God sharpened from general Arminianism to Open Theistic thinking. As I said, the details of Open Theism are as old as those of Calvinism (=Augustinianism). So, in the '80s, there was a new special interest in it. I wonder if Calvinism had a similar Baby Boom renewal of interest. Yes, it did. Calvinism surged as a major theology beginning in the '80s!

Roger E. Olson, an astute observer of church culture, gave a speech on September 10, 2017 entitled “Arminianism Is Grace-Centered Theology." The speech focuses on Baptist theological culture. He says, in part,
Beginning in the 1980s and gaining steam throughout the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century Calvinism made a major “comeback” among Baptists and other conservative Protestants.
Indeed, the books that young Calvinists read today are written in the 1990s and later. As the Baby Boom generation began to relate to God as seeking man and not the other way around, both Calvinism and Open Theism made sense.

These observations, of course, are theoretical; but it feels like a light bulb was just turned on.

How might the cultures of the next two generations have affected these two parallel theologies?

About Generation X (born 1965-1980), Haydn says, "Xers were the first generation to be taught that something can be true for you but not for me―that truth is constructed by a group of people, not revealed by God or discovered by science" (72). Xers reject the view that "there is a right answer to every question" (73). What I see here is a generation less threatened to disagree with the status quo or the standard wisdom. This generation might be suspicious of a theology so strict as Calvinism and with a God so static as Calvinism's God. The God of Open Theism has ears that listen and has a mind that can be persuaded. A relational may appeal to a Gen-Xer. Recall Bray's concern in the Theology Dictionary: "Our salvation depends on the fact that God cannot change, because his immutability is the assurance that what he has done is guaranteed to remain the same for ever." Immutability is a box Calvinists want to put God in. Otherwise, our salvation is in jeopardy. I mean, really! What if God changes his mind! We cannot let him do that! It looks to me like an average Gen-Xer is more comfortable than any previous generation that God is able to change his mind on any matter.

Millennials (born 1981-2001), says Shaw, want real, practical meaning. Rock-concert worship services don't really impact Millennials. "What Millennials really want is a meaningful place where they can settle in" (88). "Even if they attend a Bible study, it isn't where they find their sense of belonging―not as they do from hanging out with friends or family" (94). Millennials are used to being listened to. Their parents (on average) paid a lot of attention to what they had to say. Their parents were very hands-on and were excited to have and raise children. Thus, Millennials value family more than any previous generation. Churches are making a gave mistake to marginalize the Millennial Generation by talking/teaching at them without valuing what they have to say about how they read the Bible or how they find meaning in relationship to God.

Millennials probably relate to God as one who values what they have to say in their prayers. They may approach God as one who can be persuaded just by asking. The Millennials I know (my children) are very comfortable with a God who has the right to change his mind. He can still be trusted because of who he is, not because he is immutable.

I have a hunch Open Theology is a more comfortable home for the younger generations. I hope I am around to see what the Millennials do with church.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A devotional on Jeremiah 1: Don't be paralyzed

God appointed Jeremiah to a vocation to go to Jerusalem and to preach a message of coming disaster, repentance and salvation. Jeremiah had very good reasons to resist this vocation. His situation may mirror our own as we try to do the Lord's work.

(1) He was from the town of Anathoth (Jeremiah 1:1). Anathoth was a little town near Jerusalem. It was one of the Levite towns where Levites who were not of the family of high priests lived. Many of them were priests' assistants. Many had their own non-priestly vocations. The people of Anathoth were "of the priests" but they did not have titles to go with their names. They did not have "office." So Jeremiah, the priest's go-for, was being told to go to the official priests in Jerusalem and tell them that the ruin of Judah is their fault. "Yeah," they would probably say. "Where did you say you got your education? Are you ordained?"

(2) He was too young (Jeremiah 1:6). The path to leadership is all wrong. Socially speaking, it is the duty of the young to prepare for leadership. It is their place. It is not their place to actually lead. Right? The path to leadership normally consists of pretend-leading while under the wise oversight of older, more experienced leaders. That is all well and good; but some "experienced leaders" find it their role to mentor young leaders whether or not they want or need it. Beware of the leadership mentor who coaches you to not teach some things on the basis that they make people feel uncomfortable. Beware of the leadership mentor who wants to take over a ministry you started on your own. You are certainly wise to listen to all advice. However, a mentor who wants to "oversee" your personal ministry, he may be looking for a way to shut you down. Finally, if someone tries to mentor you without asking, be polite. Keep the good stuff. Brush off the bad stuff. Keep up the good work.

(3) The message he was to preach would put young Jeremiah in mortal peril. Jeremiah was afraid. God agreed that Jeremiah would face violent resistance from kings, princes, priests and a lot of regular people (Jeremiah 1:18). God said that he would provide divine protection and boldness for Jeremiah.

Functional ministry, for some reason, is very rarely convenient. Is it ever convenient?

God rarely, if ever, tells us verbally what to do. However, he has gifted each of us with something useful. We quite often have experiences similar to Jeremiah's.

(1) I notice a situation that needs ministerial attention.

(2) Nobody is addressing the situation.

(3) I realize that I am gifted in some important way to address the situation.

(4) I am reluctant to act on it because I am not properly "titled" to do that ministry (I am not a church officer). I lack a credential. I lack permission. I fear backlash.

The message from Jeremiah is that the above indicators signal that I am the one who must move forward with ministry. Yes, there will be backlash. There will be sabotage. I must not be paralyzed.

Too often we wait for God to show us open doors. What if God shows us a closed door and notifies us that it needs to be opened? He may be saying, "I have appointed you to get that door open."

To say it in Pogo language, "I has met the minister and the minister is me."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

My journey to open theism

I am going to document here my personal experience with a theological view contemporarily called "open theism."

My main motivation for writing this article is that a lot of people who know me make assumptions about how I came to be an open theist.

The usual assumption is that I read a pamphlet or a book promoting the theology and I swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

I was recently told that I should not be an open theist.


Because it is heresy.


Yes, really.

Being told that I believe something that is heresy, with no further explanation is pretty weak, to say the least. Telling me to go read some particular "systematic theology" does not fly either. I have read numerous systematic theologies; but I have not read all of the systematic theologies. I don't have time in my life for such a silly task. There are more systematic theologies out there than you can shake a stick at.

So, no. I did not become an open theist by reading a book or a pamphlet. Actually, I got there by reading the Bible. I will explain what I mean. After all, there are also more people than you can shake a stick at who came to extremely divergent theologies by, as they say (and I question), reading the Bible.

My journey began way back in 1982 or 1983. I was having a theological conversation with my brother. I mentioned some event. I cannot remember what it was. I commented on it using standard non-Calvinist language. "God knew that particular thing would happen but he did not cause it to happen."

Said my brother, "You know that does not make logical sense, don't you?"

"It makes perfect sense," I said. "God can know with certainty that something is going to happen but not cause it." That little exchange was the beginning of an hours-long conversation. He had come to the conclusion that divine providence and absolute foreknowledge were mutually exclusive. We did not agree; but we were not properly debating either. I am the one that brought up John 7:6 which I had considered interesting in light of my theological assumptions (that God foreknows but doesn't cause).
So Jesus said to them, "My time is not yet here, but your time is always opportune." (NASB)
I will not report the details of the conversation. I don't have room. Suffice it to say, it is true that it is true that God cannot be actively involved in the world, especially with respect to answering prayer, if everything is already foreknown. It really is a logical contradiction.

My conversation with my brother was not enough to change my mind at the time; but over the course of several months I did change my mind. As I read the Bible, it began to make more sense to me in light of God's actions in the world.

The Bible demonstrates that prayer changes the future because prayer motivates God to act in ways that he otherwise would not act.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:1-8)
Absolute divine foreknowledge also contradicts the biblical view that it is possible for people to lose their salvation (something Calvinists have noticed and therefore hold to the view that it is not possible to loose one's salvation).

Now, I have to confess that I did not know what to make of this kind of thinking. It turns out that, at the time, such thinking was quite unusual. I never had a need to defend it. Maybe I interpreted some scriptures in ways that some people thought strange but they didn't tell me they thought it was strange.

I want to draw a circle around a historical fact. Right now is a great time to make note of it.

I came to the view that divine providence is true and personal responsibility is also true; but those truths contradict absolute divine foreknowledge. I came to that view all by myself with a little push from my brother. I came to that theological understanding no later than 1983. Now the term "open theism" was coined sometime after 1980 when Richard Rice's book The Openness of God was published. I had never heard of Rice's book nor had I heard of the term "open theism."

One day in 2007, a colleague at work challenged me on my theology. He was going to try to convince me to be a Calvinist. I decided to go ahead and debate him on the subject. He was a cool person and quite likable. I figured we may both grow spiritually from the exercise. Now, this colleague assumed I was an Arminian (which is the usual form of non-Calvinism). I also figured I must be an Arminian. I went out an read some books that promoted the usual approaches against Calvinism. I found them to be extremely frustrating because I found myself strongly disagreeing with them. I know I was not a Calvinist; but apparently I was not an Arminian either. What was I?

I also read F. LaGard Smith's Troubling Questions for Calvinists ...And All the Rest of Us. In LaGard Smith's interesting book, he took to task the theology that I actually believed. I did not find his arguments persuasive; but that's not my point. I discovered the name for my theology: open theism. I also learned the names of some of the proponents of open theism. I tracked down some of their books and read them. I did find may of their arguments persuasive and valid.

So really, I did not hear about open theism and then decide to be one. The story is, I drew theological conclusions from the Bible. Decades later learned that what I believed had a name: open theism.

That's my story.