Saturday, December 22, 2018

In Defense of Redford College

(Here's a guest post from my colleague, Dr. Zach Manis)

There has been a lot of commotion over the past few weeks on the internet regarding the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry at Southwest Baptist University.  Maybe you’ve heard some of it.  Maybe you’ve heard a lot of it.  According to the critics of the college, a grave injustice has been perpetrated against an innocent man, Dr. Clint Bass, who was fired for the reason that his colleagues held doctrinal beliefs that are “liberal,” while Bass himself espouses a pure and unadulterated conservative Baptist theology.  This narrative is exciting—Let us rally to the defense of justice!—and in the mouths of Dr. Bass’s supporters, nearly all of whom seem to  share his theological persuasions, self-aggrandizing.  It is also, unfortunately for Bass and his champions, flatly false. The truth of the matter is not nearly as exciting, or nearly so flattering to Dr. Bass.
The fact is that Clint Bass was fired for gross professional misconduct.  His intention, as best I can tell, was to get most of the theology faculty of Redford College fired, myself included, by any means necessary, and arrange to have us replaced by those who share his narrow and intolerant version of Christian theology in its most minute detail. (Bass has presented his own views as being simply those expressed in the most recent version of a prominent Baptist confessional statement called The Baptist Faith and Message.  The evidence suggests otherwise, but we’ll ignore this for now.)  His methods were patient—spanning at least the last five years—and deliberate, as well as seditious and quite treacherous.  The colleagues that he betrayed are the same ones who voted to hire him, to recommend him for tenure, and to promote him from Assistant to Associate Professor.  Colleagues who have, up to this point, respected him as a teacher and scholar and supported him in all of his professional endeavors.  In response to this support and show of collegiality on the part of the other professors in Redford College, Dr. Bass borrowed a page from one of his research interests, the Puritans—the worst possible page, I’m afraid.  He planned, organized, and did everything in his power to carry out a witch hunt.  He seems to have convinced himself that all of these actions are justified, and even noble, insofar as they were done in the name of God and the advancement of doctrinal purity.  But it is a dark thought that treachery is justified in the service of a good and righteous cause. 
What I have to say about this whole sordid affair will begin with some remarks about my experience in Redford College up to this point, will then move to a consideration of Dr. Bass’s allegations against me personally—as well as the “evidence” upon which they are based—, and finally attempt to bring into focus what I think is really at stake in all this, which is nothing less than a fight for the very soul of the university. 
When I applied for the job of Assistant Professor of Philosophy over thirteen years ago,  I told the faculty members who interviewed me that one of the most attractive features of the position, for myself as a Christian philosopher, was the prospect of teaching in a department with colleagues who are experts in other disciplines, such as biblical studies, theology, and church history—disciplines in which I have no formal training, but whose content I was (and continue to be) eager to learn more.  I was sincere in this remark.  Coming to SBU was an opportunity to be a part of a community of Christian scholars from whom I had much to learn, and, being a product of a liberal arts education, the desire to continue learning throughout the length of my life is one that is deep in the marrow.  
Over the years, I have frequently availed myself of the opportunity to learn more about important biblical and theological matters by bringing my questions on these topics to my colleagues, who have generously given of their time to share their wisdom and learning with me.  Sometimes, the questions I have brought to my colleagues have been about issues that I have encountered while reading Scripture or trying to understand theological matters that have troubled me.  How should we understand this particular hard saying of the Bible?  How do we make sense of that particular theological problem?  As a Christian philosopher, I believe that we should not ignore difficult or troubling questions of these kinds.  Our God is big enough to handle our toughest questions.  We should bring them to Him, every last one, in earnestness and humility.  And often, when we do so, our Lord teaches us through the members of His body, the Church, including members of the community of faith of which we are a part.  For myself, some of the most helpful and influential members of the Body through whom I have been instructed are my colleagues in Redford College. 
My efforts to learn from my colleagues have almost always been rewarded, first, by a warm reception of my questions, followed by a hearty exchange of ideas, and ending with greater understanding, on my part at least, as I have learned from their wisdom.   But, I am sad to say, this has not always been the case.  A few years back, in the Fall of 2015, I was on sabbatical, working on a book-length project on the problem of hell.  Reflection on this topic had led me to begin wrestling with some questions about how to understand the relationship between Christian tradition and the Baptist faith.  For example: What authority does Christian tradition have, according to Baptists?  Don’t we have to recognize tradition as having some authority in order to make sense of such matters as the canonization of Scriptures (the selection of books that would be included in the Bible)?  After all, if the church councils in which these decisions were made are regarded as having no authority, what assurance do we have that the Bible contains all and only the “right” books?  These sorts of questions are very much outside of the discipline in which I have been trained, and they are questions to which I did not see any obvious and satisfying answers.  But I recognized them as being clearly important questions.  I wanted to begin trying to sort through them and (hopefully) gain some insight and clarity, and I thought that there was an obvious way to go about this.  What I needed, in this case, was insight from someone who is an expert in either church history or Baptist thought.  And what luck (I thought to myself): we have a member of our own department who is an expert in both!  That person, of course, was Dr. Clint Bass.
So with his permission, I sat in on a few of Dr. Bass’s lectures at the beginning of his History of Christianity I course, which covers the period of time in church history most pertinent to the particular questions I was asking at the time.  And on a few occasions, I stayed after class was over to ask some follow-up questions.  It is worth pausing at this point to reiterate the purpose of these conversations.  The point was to try to articulate a certain problem that I was thinking about, to someone who is an expert on the topic to which the problem pertains, in order to find out what are the best possible answers to the problem that can be given (or, at least, the best possible answers that have been developed thus far).  Dr. Bass gave me his answers, and (though I don’t have a clear memory of the exact details of the conversation, I think it’s likely that this is what I did, because it’s what I usually do in these conversations) I “pushed” the questions a bit, to try to make sure the problem was being posed in its sharpest form,  in order to try to discern whether the answer being proposed was fully satisfactory.  This is the way that philosophers go about trying to answer hard questions.  We engage in a dialectic—a back-and-forth discussion in which all sides of an issue are presented, defended, and critiqued—in order to assess the relative merits and strengths of various possible solutions.  In short, I was applying a philosophical method of inquiry to questions of church history and theology. 
I’m afraid that all of this must have been very confusing to Dr. Bass.  At least, that’s the most charitable interpretation that I know of to explain the actions he took in the wake of these conversations.  He seems to think that I was expressing to him a set of settled theological convictions.  But of course, I wasn’t: the whole point of sitting in on his lectures and conversing with him afterward was to try to figure something out, to try to discern what the best available answers are to a certain set of questions that I had been wrestling with.  The conversations were fairly short, and few in number.  But apparently, whatever views he thought I was expressing in those conversations were views that he found troubling. 
So what did he do? 
Before answering that question, let me ask another: What would you do in this situation?  Let us suppose for present purposes that Dr. Bass’s confusion in this situation was sincere, in order to attribute to his subsequent actions the purest motives possible.  Now put yourself in his place.  Suppose that one of your colleagues seemed to be expressing to you in conversation a set of views that you considered to be mistaken, problematic, or disturbing, and suppose that these views pertained to matters of the Christian faith.  Suppose that your impression of your colleague’s views was based on a few, short conversations.  What would you do?  My guess is, if you are motivated at all by Christian charity, you would go to that colleague, to engage him in conversation, in order to get clarity on the matter.  You would probably say something like the following: “In our conversation the other day, I thought I heard you say that you believe [such-and-such], which seems to me a badly mistaken, and maybe even a dangerous, thing to believe.  Did I understand you correctly?  Is that really the view that you hold?”   
This, I’m sorry to report, was not Clint Bass’s reaction.  His way of dealing with the situation was rather different.  Judging from the campaign that has been carried out against Redford College, and the particular “evidence” that has been presented against me, personally, it seems that what Dr. Bass did is this.  He took out his collection of secret notes, in which he compiled a record of comments from his colleagues that he had heard—or thought he had heard, or heard that someone else had heard—a record of comments that he deemed “un-Baptist,” and he added some choice “quotes” from our conversation to his record.  He behaved, not like a brother in Christ, but like a secret agent in a police state, assigned the task of continual surveillance of his peers, for the purpose of trying to amass evidence by which they might some day be prosecuted for supposed thought crimes.  This is not, let us say, a clear depiction of the Pauline admonition to believers given in 1 Corinthians 13.
I suppose I should add that there was nothing personal about any of this—at least, nothing “personal” in the sense of singling me out for this kind of treatment.  Dr. Bass behaved this way toward all his colleagues in Redford.  Consider the following quote, from a recent Facebook post by the Dean of Redford College, Dr. Rodney Reeves, in which Dr. Reeves explains the way that Bass handled suspicions that he (Reeves) held a variety of “objectionable” views:
“Never once did he [Clint] ever discuss these things with me. Never once did he ask me what I believe about these things. Never once did he respect me enough to say, “hey, I heard some students say this about what you believe. Is that true?” I would do that for him. I have done that for other faculty. This is what Jesus taught us to do: go to each other to clear up a matter (Matt. 5:23; 18:15). But Clint didn’t do that. He chose, instead, to call into question my theological integrity by spreading lies about me.”
In the smear campaign against Redford College that has unfolded over the past weeks, one of the pieces of misinformation that has been repeatedly propagated is that Clint had approached us, his Redford colleagues, about these matters of theological concern, and had discussed them with us.  Let me be clear and state this in the most unequivocal terms: Clint Bass did not came to any of us, ever, to express his concerns about our theological views and to allow us to address his concerns in person.  Never.  Not one of us.  Not in 10+ years of teaching in the Redford College of Theology and Ministry. 
Dr. Bass is now apparently trying to pass off an intradepartmental email exchange from January 2018 as evidence that he discussed these matters with us.  But the contents of the email prove otherwise.  For those of you unfamiliar with the email, which has been (of dubious legality) posted publicly online: Dr. Reeves received an email from a “concerned parent” who was inquiring as to what kind of theological education their son could expect to receive from our college.  Dr. Reeves’s asked for input from the rest of the faculty before responding to the parents, and in light of the feedback he received—which did not include any suggestions from Dr. Bass—, he wrote his response and emailed it to the parents.  After the reply to the parents had already been sent, Dr. Bass followed up with a “Reply All” message to the entire Redford faculty, chastising Dr. Reeves for his treatment of the matter. 
For the moment, let us put aside considerations of how extraordinarily unprofessional and disrespectful it was to rebuke the Dean of our College in an email sent to our entire faculty, after having himself made no attempt to contribute to the discussion up to that point, rather than approaching Dr. Reeves in private with his concerns.  Let us for now focus on a different question.  Is it reasonable to consider this email from Dr. Bass an acceptable substitute for approaching members of the Redford faculty in person, and (at least at first) in private, to try to understand our individual views and to give us a chance to explain our theological positions?  Of course not.  To present this exchange as evidence of Dr. Bass’s engaging the Redford faculty with legitimate concerns, in good faith, is simply laughable—or at least, it would be, were the matter not so serious. And yet there is no other occasion on which Dr. Bass came to any of us to discuss his concerns.
Some of Dr. Bass’s supporters seem to imagine that he was fired because of his conservative theological views, views to which the administration and the other faculty of Redford College are opposed.  In fact, no one in Redford College had any objection to Bass’s theological views.  By “objection,” I mean that no one held his views against him, nor sought to oppose him, personally or professionally, for any of his views.  Of course, some of us would likely “object” to some of the finer points of Dr. Bass’s preferred theological system in the sense of disagreeing with him, if he had engaged any of us in discussions about such matters.  Disagreements on matters of theological particulars are inevitable among Christian scholars, who spend a great deal of time reflecting on such issues.  Not only are such disagreement inevitable, they are healthy.  It is a sign of departmental vitality when the members of a theological faculty disagree with one another, respectfully and in good faith, about secondary and tertiary matters of doctrine. (I am referring here not to fundamental matters of the Christian faith, like the authority of Scripture or the divinity of Christ, but rather to minor issues, like debates over the “five points” of Calvinism—to pick one example.)  This is healthy for a number of reasons: first, because it means that students will be exposed to a wide variety of options that exist within Christian orthodoxy, matters about which Christians of good will may faithfully disagree with one another.  Second, it means that faculty members will sharpen one another, “as iron sharpens iron,” in formulating their views, being forced by their colleagues to consider opposing arguments and critiques.  All of this is healthy, and to be celebrated in a department of theology.  A diversity of theological opinions on the minor issues (again, not on the fundamental doctrines, but on the secondary and tertiary issues) is part of what makes a department of Christian theology vibrant. 
Throughout the years, some of us in Redford College have sought to model to our student body what it looks like for Christians to discuss differences of theological opinion in a healthy and constructive way.  Public forums, such as the one in which Dr. Reeves and I discussed the topic of hell, are a way of trying to foster an atmosphere of open inquiry among our students, giving them a chance to see what it looks like for professors to defend different, and sometimes opposing, views in a spirit of mutual respect and willingness to listen and learn from other members of the Christian community.  A recording of this particular forum, however, has now been posted online as evidence of our supposed “heretical” views.  Once again, step back from the debates about the theological topics under discussion in this forum, for a moment, to notice how pernicious this is.  An academic event that is meant to foster discussion and reflection among our student body about important theological issues—a worthy goal of a Christian academic community, if ever there was one—is instead put in the service of a witch hunt, presented as evidence of the unfitness of the participants to teach at a Baptist institution.  (For those of you who have listened only to the collection of audio snippets, conveniently compiled for your quick and efficient formulation of a judgment of our views, know that you have been deceived.  If you want to understand anything at all about our respective positions on the various topics that we discussed in the forum, you must listen to the entire exchange, as well as the Q&A that follows, in full.)  It is important to appreciate the message that it sends to our students, to use a recording of the forum in this way, and the chilling effect that this has on the atmosphere of an academic institution.  The message to the community is clear: “Don’t you dare even entertain, much less sympathetically consider, much less endorse, a view that is contrary to what WE believe.” (Here “WE” refers to whatever authoritative body supposedly sets the theological agenda for the university.)  Do you honestly think that students’ faith would be strengthened by there being only one, officially sanctioned set of theological beliefs that the university will allow to be even discussed?  If you do, I would ask you to reflect on the fact that a great many atheists these days describe themselves as “recovering fundamentalists.”  An environment that does not tolerate theological questioning or serious consideration of opposing views is not an effective inoculation against religious doubt.  Instead, it is fertile ground for a crisis of faith later in life, when exposure to such questions and opposing views is no longer avoidable.  We do our students no favors by treating their time in college as a glorified day care for overgrown children, where we will shelter impressionable young minds from any ideas that might challenge their preexisting assumptions, until mom and dad can return and pick them up after graduation.  This is an unbelievably condescending view of our students, who are themselves adults, and fully capable of engaging in rigorous and serious philosophical and theological reflection, and of forming their own views on these matters in a careful and responsible way.
And this brings us, finally, to what I believe to be the heart of the matter in all of this.  The question that this whole, ugly chapter in the history of SBU has so clearly brought into focus is this: What is the purpose of a Christian liberal arts education?  And it is clear that there are at least two very different answers to this question on display in the horde of opinions currently circulating on social media and the larger discussion on the internet.  One possible answer—the answer that is pretty clearly assumed by those who have slandered Dr. Reeves and his teaching ministry to our students—is that its purpose is indoctrination.  On the indoctrination model, a Christian education is one in which professors stand before a class, and present to the students a set of views (no doubt, the professor’s own theological opinions on matters great and small) as indisputable facts that the students shall accept, on the professor’s authority, and repeat back to him/her on an exam, perhaps as proof of the student’s fidelity to doctrinal purity as the professor understands it.  Evidence that this is the model of education assumed by many of our critics—including Dr. Bass himself—is found in their telltale use of the word “teach.”  For example: that “Manis teaches” inclusivism, purgatory, etc. in classes at SBU.   
In my philosophy classes, I do not “teach” anything, in the indoctrination sense of the term.  I do not instruct my students on what they should believe on controversial philosophical or theological matters. (The phrase “controversial philosophical matter” is redundant, by the way. Any topic that is uncontroversial does not belong to the discipline of philosophy.)  The claim that I “teach” inclusivism, or purgatory, or any other view displays confusion about what it is that goes on in a philosophical classroom—or at any rate, what goes on in my classes.    
What motivates the discussions and other content of my classes is a very different model of education, one that stands in stark contrast to the indoctrination model.  One of the primary tasks of Christian education—including theological education—on this alternative model is that of equipping students to think for themselves about deep questions of enduring significance for their lives, including (especially) their faith.  There is a great deal of lip-service paid to “critical thinking” these days, but the reality of actually trying to foster it in students requires that students be exposed to a wide variety of topics, ideas, controversies, and opposing views.  It is not fostered by “teaching” students in the manner discussed above—the method of indoctrination.  It is fostered by introducing students to questions, contemporary debates, philosophical and theological problems, etc. and helping them to appreciate what the issues are and why people may reasonably disagree about them.  It goes on to consider arguments on both sides of an issue (in some cases, many sides), as well as counterarguments and critiques of each side.  And it culminates in equipping students with a method by which they may evaluate these competing arguments for themselves, and to arrive at conclusions in a way that is careful, reasoned, well-informed, and capable of being rigorously defended, all while still appreciating the merits of an opposing viewpoint.  This is not relativism, or subjectivism, or postmodernism, or any of the other boogeymen that haunt the imaginations of Christian fundamentalists.  This is, quite simply, what it is to engage in critical thinking, and what it is to equip students to do the same.
My classes have always been, and will always be, for as long as I have the distinct privilege of being a professor at SBU, a safe place for students to explore ideas, and in particular ideas about important matters pertaining to the Christian faith.  My classes will never be used as a platform for indoctrination—regardless of anyone’s preference or demands to the contrary.  One of the very first things that I try to impress on my students in introductory philosophy courses is that I have no interest whatsoever in producing ideological clones who will parrot my own views back to me.  My students are not only permitted, but positively encouraged, to disagree with me on any matter of philosophical or theological controversy that they wish.  I am reticent to reveal my philosophical opinions in my introductory courses, not because I have something to hide, but because I want to make sure, before expressing my own views, that the students have deeply internalized the point that they cannot settle philosophical questions for themselves by simply deferring to my supposed authority and adopting whatever conclusions I might have reached on the issue.  That is not how philosophy works.  My task as a philosophy teacher is to equip my students to develop and defend their own views.  This is what it is to begin to think critically.  And the fostering of this ability is among the principle ends of a Christian liberal arts university.    
If there is a silver lining on the calamitous course of events that has unfolded at SBU recently, it is this: it is now evident, in the way that this crisis has been handled, that the university is presently under very capable leadership at the highest offices of the President and the Provost.  When Dr. Eric Turner was hired to be the 25th President of SBU, many of us had the sense that his appointment was providential.  It seems clear now that he was brought to the university “for such a time as this,” to lead us through tumultuous waters that very likely would have destroyed our university under less capable leadership.  I am deeply grateful to both Dr. Turner and Dr. Lee Skinkle for their service to our university.  And I am encouraged by what I see in them, both in their leadership and in their character as men of God, for the future of SBU to become a shining example of what Christian liberal arts education can be.  Christian education is a sacred endeavor, and one that can be used by the Lord to accomplish great things in the lives of students, as well as to support the Church and to advance the Kingdom of God.  It is my distinct privilege to be a part of an institution of higher education that understands its mission clearly in these terms.
I suspect that some of you who have made it this far in my “essay” still are not satisfied.  “What about the specific charges of doctrinal error that have been leveled against you?  How do you answer?”  I answer… in person.  I have no interest in trying to shout down the mob.  My weapon of defense is reason, which is, I’m afraid, utterly useless against those who are incapable of rational reflection or critical thinking.  In my experience, individuals are generally reasonable, and quite capable of rational reflection and critical thinking.  The mob is none of these.  So if you would like to hear more about what I believe, or why I believe the things I do,* on any philosophical or theological topic that interests you, I invite you to come by my office some time, or to meet me for coffee, and we will discuss it.  But I’ll warn you in advance (spoiler alert!) that you’ll be disappointed if your vested interest is in rooting out heretics.  I am firmly committed to orthodox Christianity.  I will say it again.  I am firmly and unequivocally committed to the fundamentals of the faith that comprise orthodox Christian theism.  So much so, in fact, that if you can convince me that some belief that I hold is contrary to orthodoxy, I will certainly recant that belief… and thank you for your loving Christian service to me.  What you should not expect, of course, is for me to take it on your word that every alternative to your preferred theological system is beyond the pale of orthodoxy.  You should come prepared with arguments.  And expect that I will do the same.
One question remains: How should we move forward in our personal relationships with Clint Bass?  Here our Lord presents us with only one option: we must forgive.  It is not given to us to forgive some trespasses but not others.  I am praying for Clint daily, as well as for many of his supporters who have joined him in publicly slandering those of us who serve in the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry.  And I encourage you to do the same.  No reconciliation is possible by any work of man.  But our God is a mighty God, and the conviction of His Spirit is at work in the hearts of all believers.  May we listen to Him and respond faithfully, continually looking forward in hope to the day when we may be reunited in fellowship and communion with each other, and with the Lord.

* Even after so lengthy a post, please permit me to add one footnote, to my remarks about “what I believe, or why I believe the things I do.”  It appears that some Christians are inclined to hold all of their theological beliefs—from the existence of God, to the authority of Scripture, all the way down to beliefs about church structure—with equal conviction.  I am not a Christian of this sort.  I hold the fundamentals of the faith—what C. S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity”—not only with conviction, but as positively unrelinquishable.  But on a great many issues—and this includes, especially, speculative views about the details of the afterlife—I am content to recognize that the issues in question are not possible objects of knowledge, because they are not a part of the revelation given to us in God’s Word.  Some of these matters are of tremendous importance, in my view—a good example is the fate of those who die in infancy—and I’m convinced that philosophical and theological reflection on these matters can be fruitful and even yield genuine insight.  But the beliefs that emerge from such reflections should always be recognized for what they are: conjectures.  At best, they are informed conjectures, guided by careful reflection on the desiderata of fidelity to Scripture, Christian tradition, deeply held moral and theological convictions, etc.  But there is no sense in pretending that our beliefs on such matters enjoy anything like rational certainty; nor is there any reason to pretend that they need to.  There is a much more sensible—a much more authentically Baptist—position that one can, and should, hold in such matters, and it is this: “IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY.”

Friday, December 21, 2018

Why I'm not an annihilationist

Over the last decade or so, annihilation (the view that the damned are destroyed in hell) has been gaining a hearing among evangelical scholars, with several completely affirming the idea.  Consequently, I’ve read a few works that trot out the pros and cons of the argument.  And, like any idea in biblical scholarship, what I appreciate most about these kinds of works is when they drive me back to read Scripture more carefully, challenging my assumptions.  For example, I hadn’t really thought about why both Jesus and Paul sometimes describe God’s judgment of the unredeemed as “destruction” (Matt. 7:13; 10:28; 22:7; Phil. 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:9).  Or how hell (Gehenna) is described as a place of “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43), which doesn’t necessarily mean that the wicked themselves burn forever.  That is to say, hell is an eternal fire but mortals do not suffer eternally.

One of the motivations for affirming annihilation is the offensive idea that God tortures these victims forever.  Since humans are mortal, then the only way we live after death is if God gives us life.  Of course, for those of us who die in Christ Jesus, we believe we will be raised immortal through His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52-53).  But for those who die in Adam (to use Paul’s language of corporate identity), the wicked must be raised to suffer God’s judgment on the last day—what both Jesus and the Revelation of John refer to as the “resurrection of judgment/[second] resurrection” (John 5:29; Rev. 20:5-6, 13).  That means God has to raise the wicked from the dead, keeping them alive, as it were, in order to torture them forever in a fiery hell/lake of fire—an offensive picture these days.  And yet, for me, such an objection doesn’t carry a lot of weight since the Scriptures are filled with many things that offend modern sensibilities, e.g., Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies, Paul’s emphasis that weakness is strength, that Jesus and Paul taught a strict sexual ethic, that Jesus performed miracles, that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, that Jesus will return one day.  Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive to many, never acceptable to the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1:18-25)

But that is not to say that some of the arguments for annihilation regarding the nature of punishment of the wicked are not persuasive.  For example some scholars point out that Jesus said that hell was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41).  And, since angels are immortal, that’s why hell has to be a place of eternal torment.  But, since humans are mortal, eternal hell will destroy unredeemed humanity.

And yet, there are at least two passages of Scripture that affirm eternal punishment of the wicked:  one from Jesus, the other from Paul.  During that same parable, Jesus sums up the final destiny of sheep and goats:  the goats “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (v. 46).  It’s one thing for Jesus to talk about hell as a place of eternal fire (v. 41).  But, it’s quite something else for Jesus to describe the “accursed ones” as having to suffer eternal punishment.  Also, Paul claims that, when Jesus returns, he will “deal out retribution to those who don’t know God and to those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:8).  What that means, according to Paul, is that the wicked will “pay the penalty of eternal ruin, away from the face of the Lord and the glory of his strength” (v. 19).  There it is again:  Paul doesn’t write about a place of eternal punishment but that the damned will suffer eternal ruin.  Annihilationists argue that “eternal” in both places can mean “permanent” rather than “endless.”  But, it seems to me both Jesus and Paul are emphasizing the kind of judgment (punishment, ruin) not the result.  So, because of the way I read these two texts, I am not an annihilationist.

But we’re still left with the problem:  how do we reconcile these two different ideas about hell?  How can hell be both destruction and eternal punishment?  I used to say that I “lean” toward annihilation since passages about hell as destruction and hell as an eternal place of judgment outnumber passages that imply endless torment of the damned.  And yet, like other paradoxes in Scripture, I now affirm both at the same time:  hell is both endless punishment and destruction.  We could speculate about how both can be true, e.g., does Jesus provide a clue when he says that hell will be “more tolerable” for some (Matt. 11:22, 24), i.e., destruction?  But that is merely suggestive and not definitive.  And so we are left with the paradox.

But that’s fine with me.  The older I get, the more comfortable I am affirming paradoxes in Scripture.  I no longer feel obliged to solve the riddle but, instead, I revel in it.  I always want to affirm all of Scripture not just the parts that confirm my interpretation.  And so, I believe that hell is destruction and eternal punishment.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Blessed are the peacemakers--in politics too?

"I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war" (Ps. 120:7)

It's easy to be misunderstood these days, what with all of the rancor in political and social discourse.  We've become so ensconced in our right to be right, we make assumptions about each other long before they open their mouths (or write their posts on social media).  There is no benefit of the doubt.  No room for nuance.  No consideration of the other.  Our sense of infallibility has kicked it hard as we retreat to our fortresses and aim to shoot down the American enemy.  And, the closer we get to November 6th, the worse it gets.  The political calendar has ordered our days. Almost like the holidays, I'll be so relieved when it's over.  Indeed, it seems that all other calendars--cultural and religious--have been eclipsed by politics. That's true even for Christians, who are supposed to operate according to a sacred rhythm of life:  Sabbaths and holy days.

We've not only lost a sense of sacred time, but sacred words.  Every time I hear a Christian bash another Christian over politics, I think about the evil one--how much he must be pleased.  Paul warned us about this:  our fight isn't with one another, it's with unseen forces of darkness, malevolent powers that are out to destroy us.  In fact, every time the devil shows up in Paul's writings, it's when he's warning us about his schemes:  to destroy the church by getting us to war with each other.  Paul never blames the devil for sin (he blames the flesh, the law, and Sin is a malevolent power).  But the apostle was convinced that when he saw Christians fighting each other, the devil was in the middle of it:  the chief instigator of strife and factions.

The devil is winning.  He's dividing families, workplaces, even churches over politics.  And I thought nothing could separate us from the love of Christ.  But that doesn't seem to be the case these days.

There is an evil spirit in the air that I haven't seen in a long time.  Hatred.  Pure hatred for our American enemy.  And I thought Christians were supposed to love our enemies.  But that doesn't seem to be the case these days.

There is a war that is raging.  Christians wounding Christians with vile words.  And I thought peacemakers we're supposed to be blessed.  But that doesn't seem to be the case these days.

American politics reigns over everything.  And I thought we're supposed to seek first the kingdom of God.  But that doesn't seem to the case these days.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Problem with idols

(An excerpt from my book on John's Spirituality)

When John ended his letter with the admonition, “Little children, protect yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21), it seems to come out of nowhere.  Up to this point, John hasn’t mentioned the threat of idolatry at all.  Other enemies have been named:  the devil/the evil one, the world, false prophets, antichrists, liars, and haters.  But in all of John’s warnings about needing to “overcome” their enemies, the problem of idolatry was never mentioned—until the end.  Why?  Was it an after thought?  “Oh, yes.  One more thing. I’d better warn them about idols before I sign off.  After all, that’s the lesson we Jews finally learned after hundreds of years of worshipping false gods.  Don’t mess with idols.  Idolatry only leads to immorality.”[1]  And yet, John doesn’t warn them about the perils of idolatry (eidololatria).  It’s the idol itself that poses a threat to his community.[2]  So, what does John mean by the term eidolon? 

Eidolon derives from the root eido, meaning “what is seen.”[3]  Since Jesus Christ is the true God—the “what-can-be-seen” of the invisible God—then all idols stand in opposition to the claims of that one-of-a-kind divine revelation.  That’s why John pits the Icon of the invisible God against all other pretenders, eidolon that pose as icons of invisible deity.  John sees things from a very Jewish perspective, a binary world of worshippers of the one true God and the idolaters.  Similarly, Wisdom of Solomon 14:13 comes in the midst of several warnings the sage has been giving to his people about the folly of idols (13:1-14:31).  After citing the Jewish claim that idols lead to immorality (13:12), he says an idol “neither was from the beginning nor shall it be to the age.  For through human vainglory it came into the world” (vv. 13-14).  Since subjects in distant lands couldn’t honor their king, they made a “visible image [eikon]” of the one who was “absent though present” (v. 17).  The same was true in John’s day; busts of Caesar were set up all over the Roman Empire to remind citizens to celebrate and subjects to fear his imperial rule—what the sage considered a precursor to making idols of “the unmentionable name” (God).  Idols, therefore, became “a trap in life” (v. 21), leading devotees to false worship.  And so, according to the sage, idols were man’s feeble attempt to make present the invisible God.[4]

But John had been making the case throughout his writings that when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, it was the only revelation of God that we would ever need.  Furthermore, when the Church obeys the commandment of Christ to love one another as he has loved us, then the visible presence of the invisible God—his love—“abides” among us (1 John 4:16).  But what happens when we don’t love one another, when the love of Christ isn’t present, when the absence of God is evident?  Then lonely men and women will go “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  In the vacuum of the absence of God’s love, John knew we would turn to idols—vacuous promises of divine presence.  That’s why, I think, John kept reminding his community about the love of God, the command to love one another like Christ, the danger of claiming to love God but hating our brother, and the importance of abiding in the word they heard from John’s Gospel.  “This vision of place, friendship, mutuality, and service that is embodied in residential communities all over the world is rooted in the belief that Jesus’s gift of friendship and love creates new and surprising forms of friendship between those who would otherwise be alienated from one another.”[5]  Indeed, if people don’t find the love of Christ in the Church (incarnation!), they’ll look to idols—any visible hope of deity—that alienate them from God and from us.

If John were to write his letter to the Church today, one wonders what the last line would be:  “Little children, protect yourselves from ______________.”  Since idols that were once ubiquitous in his world no longer populate our world, I wonder what John would see as the major threat to Christ-believers today.  Just like idols of his day, everywhere we look we would see them—a visible display of an invisible power.  These “idols” would stand in opposition to our claim that Jesus is one-of-a-kind.  Christians might be susceptible to them, needing the warning to “protect yourselves.”  People disillusioned with the Church would turn to them when they didn’t see the love of Christ in us.  Promoters would hold them up as paragons of divine favor.  The masses would worship them.  Christians would be attracted to them.  And the ways of the world would be empowered by them.  So, what are the present-day “American idols” that John would be compelled to warn us about?  I think he would write, “Little children protect yourselves from heroes.”  Our culture is obsessed with heroes:  courageous men and women who risk their lives to save us from peril, mighty soldiers who protect us from hostility, brilliant geniuses who create a better world for us, and gifted artists who entertain us.  We cry out for heroes.  We hope for heroes.  We venerate heroes.  These larger than life super heroes are our gods.  Lovers desire them.  Fans adore them.  Our children want to be them.  Mythologies promote them—in politics, in sports, in music, and in film.  The images of our heroes are everywhere, demanding our attention.  We spend a lot of time and money in our devotion to them.  We build shrines to their popularity.  We offer praise to their superiority.  Is it any wonder, then, that hero worship is our new religion?  Just listen to the masses praise them.

[1]A common theme in Jewish polemics against idolatry:  “For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life” (Wis. Sol. 14:12, NRSV); see also Rom. 1:21-25.
[2]“The choice of the term eidolon, rather than the conceptual term eidololatr(e)ia, is significant.  The rejection of idols, according to John, is the obverse of knowing the true God,” Terry Griffith, Keep Yourselves from Idols:  A New Look at 1 John, JSNT Supp 233 (Sheffield:  Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), p. 57.
[3]For an excellent survey of the meaning and background of eidolon, see Griffith, Keep Yourselves from Idols, pp. 28-57.
[4]“We may conclude that the image functioned in the cult as a mediator of the divine presence.  It was the means by which humans gained access to the presence of the deity.  As such it represented the mystical unity of transcendence and immanence, at theophany transubstantiated,” John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament:  Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 117-18.
[5]Jipp, Hospitality, p. 94 (emphasis mine).  Here Jipp is referring to residential communities like L’Arche.  But, I wonder whether his description of their ministry shouldn’t also be the reality of the Church.  In other words, perhaps “residential communities” have something to teach us about what it means to be the “embodied” love of Christ.