Context Context Context!

I’m in the middle of studying for our next sermon series at Soma which is a series on Philippians. Philippians is certainly one of the most beloved books of the NT. In fact, I have several friends who have even memorized it! One of the reasons why its so beloved is because it contains a plethora of memorable verses, probably more than any other Pauline letter. Take for example the following short list:

  • For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.
  • You attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
  • Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
  • And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
  • I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
  • And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

How many times have you heard somebody say one of these phrases when times got tough? I certainly have – however from personal experience, I have certainly see how these famous verses take on a life of there own apart from anything that Paul is actually saying in the book. Without proper context these verses, especially the ones about rejoicing always and God providing everything  become at worst proof texts for a full blow prosperity gospel or at best a pseudo-prosperity gospel.

Without proper context, these verses get watered down into a full blown or pseudo-prosperity gospel.

Careful study of Philippians shows that these verses are the furthest thing from a form of the prosperity gospel, or name-it-claim-it, or wishful, positive Christian thinking. Paul can say these things, not because he can find the positive in every situation and not because he hopes that God will bail him out, no, Paul can say these things because he knows that he has the ultimate treasure and comfort, i.e. knowing Christ and being in Christ.

Bavinck’s Virtue Ethics

In “Distinctively Common” an essay by Clay Cooke – a PhD candidate at Fuller Seminary and Free University of Amsterdam – he notes that Herman Bavinck has a unique Reformed take on virtue ethics.  Bavinck believes that

“We can profit from Aristotelian thought, and without doubt Aristotle’s ethics is basically the best philosophical ethics.”                    -(Notes from Gereformeerde Ethiek van Profess. Dr. H. Bavinck)

In the notes to the lecture that Jelle Michiels De Jong took from one of Bavinck’s lectures it seems pretty clear than he lends his fervent support towards the general structure of virtue ethics. However, he also takes a critical view of virtue ethics. I believe that Bavinck’s eager but critical appropriation of this ethical system serves as an example for Christians who wish to take the best of culture while at the same time recognizing the incompatibility of certain beliefs with our faith. In other words – Bavinck’s approach to virtue ethics is both critical yet appreciative – we ought to learn to be both critical and appreciative of other man made cultural systems.

According to Cooke – Bavnick expressly rejects the Aristotelian claim that people can achieve the human telos by means of their own agency. This is quite in line with his reformed theology which asserts that the development of virtue is only acquired by grace. A Reformed version of virtue ethics will need to prioritize grace in the process of moral formation. It will need to make explicit the fact that one does not become virtuous by means of mere habituation or practice of the virtues, rather one become virtuous (or a person of christian character) when God’s grace enables us to perform those actions which create virtuous lives.

Another aspect of Reformed virtue ethics which will remain distinctive from Aristotelian virtue ethics is that Reformed virtue ethics will aim at Christ-like cruciformity as its telos. This isn’t strictly a reformed view, rather it is a Christian view, however how one understands what cruciformity will actively look like will certainly be shaped by one’s understanding of the reformed tradition.

Walls Fall Down (Book Review)

In life you will certainly come against obstacles, trials, or problems that will make you feel overwhelmed, defeated, or just plain horrible. As a Pastor of a large church in LA pastor Dudley Rutherford has certainly see his fair share of couples who are going through marital troubles, parents whose children have gotten caught up in worldly ways, people who have lost it all in this financial crisis, people who are in bondage to porn or to drugs and alcohol, and families who have lost loved ones – so without a doubt pastor Dudley knows that everybody in this world is struggling in some way or another. Dudley has written a book for these people. He believes that if people were to follow God’s instructions to Joshua before the battle of Jericho, then people would have the same results that Joshua and the Israelites did – “any obstacle, trial, or problem you are facing will crumble at your feet.”

In his book, Dudley offers 7 spiritual strategies to make the walls before you fall down:

  1. Stand in awe of God and know his is good and sovereign.
  2. Place your trust in God’s unique plan for your life.
  3. Endeavor to honor him in all that you do.
  4. Immerse yourself in a culture of like-minded people.
  5. Be consistent with your Christian walk.
  6. Obey God’s commands because there is a direct correlation between your obedience and his blessing on your life.
  7. Embrace God’s perfect timing regarding your current trail and know that a season of joy and victory is coming.

According to Dudley, if you follow these seven principles the walls that stand before you will fall to the floor and you will experience complete and total victory.

Review

I will be completely honest with you… I had a hard time getting through this book. It seemed to me that it was continual fluff. Essentially it is a Christian self-help book that promises that “if you do these things – God will help you out in your tough situation.” Despite the fact that its filled with a “think positive, positive things will come your way” and “here are 7 surefire steps to success” type message there are a few glimmers of hope in this book. The first principle emphasizes God’s sovereignty and wisdom, it accurately teaches that God is in control and that we can have peace in any situation knowing that he is good and in control. Dudley also briefly mentions that our definition of victory might not be God’s definition of victory – he sites Paul and his life as an example. In the world’s eyes Paul’s life doesn’t look so victorious, but in God’s eyes Paul ultimately experienced victory. I wish Dudley would have began this book with this truth. Unless you define victory people will tend to define victory according to cultural norms, in this case the American dream. This is extremely dangerous for believers because it will either lead them to chase false victories or it will lead them to feel like God has abandoned them because they aren’t experience the “good life” (at least according to upper-middle class standards).

Overall, I can’t say that I’m too excited about this book. I believe that the message that is contained in this book is necessary for every believer to hear – That God always wins – but the self-help nature of this book makes me hesitant from really recommending it to anybody.

[Note: I received this book courtesy of Thomas Nelson publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

The Benefits of Believing in Predestination

Yesterday in our mini-series on the Calvinist version of predestination we took a look at how Calvin responded to some objections to his doctrine of predestination. Today, as we conclude this mini-series, we will see how he not only took a defensive stance when it came to this doctrine but how he also argued vigorously in favor of it.

The Benefits  of Believing in Predestination

It is apparent that Calvin believes that predestination is not unjust. However he does not limit himself to arguing defensively for the doctrine, he also makes a positive argument for it. Calvin believes that one way that Satan assaults believers is to make them question their election (3.24.4). This doctrine has the positive effect of reassuring the believer that she is elect. In revealing this doctrine through scripture, God assures us of our election. By looking at Christ, the one in whom we find certainty of our election (3.24.5), our fears are soothed, our restlessness is calmed, and our fatigued senses are tranquilized, in our election we find rest (3.24.4). Calvin also argues for this doctrine by showing that because we can be sure of our election in Christ, we can be sure that God hears our prayers (3.24.5). Finally this doctrine also spurs us on towards obedience. In election His justice humbles us and teaches us to look up to his mercy, when see his justice and mercy we are aroused and stimulated to live a holy life (224).

Although this doctrine can be difficult to accept, Calvin is right in emphasizing that it is Scriptural and that God’s justice is inscrutable. He is also right in saying that this doctrine has tremendous benefits. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his version of predestination, because of the reasons mentioned in this post and the last few posts we must not be quick to dismiss this difficult and controversial doctrine.

(Note: All quotes come from the anthology, The Protestant Reformation edited by Hans Hildebrand.)

Four Reasons Why Calvinism is Just Plain Wrong

Yesterday in our mini-series on the Calvinist version of predestination we tackled the question – “According to John Calvin what is predestination?” Today we take a look at the question…

Is Predestination Unjust?

In Book Three chapter 23 Calvin responds to four objections regarding the injustice of the doctrine of predestination. Let us look at these four objections and his responses. By doing this we will see a common thread between each of these responses.

Calvinism twists the character of God.

The first objection to the doctrine of predestination, specifically reprobation, is that it twists the character of God. This objection is articulated in two ways the first which is found in 3.23.2 says that a God that “is offended by his creatures who have not provoked him without any previous offense… resembles more the caprice of a tyrant than the sentence of a judge” (232) The second articulation of this offense is found in 3.23.4, which says that by creating humans that are predestined condemnation God is unjust in “cruelly mocking his creatures.” (234) Both of these objections make the case that reprobation is cruel and unjust because the reprobate did not choose their fate. Calvin responds to this objection by saying that “the will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of willing it” (232). To say that there is some law above God to which He must comply is impious. By leveling this objection against predestination, the objector is setting up a standard for justice above God. Calvin responds by saying that God is not lawless, rather God is a law to himself, thus he is not bound to give an account for why this is just. This type of response resembles Ockham’s voluntarism which says that God does not will something because it is good or just but that something is good or just because God wills it.

Calvinism violates the principle of alternate possibilities.

The second objection is that it is unjust for God to “blame individuals for things the necessity of which he has imposed by his own predestination” (236). This seems like an appeal to something like the principle of alternate possibilities. These people believe that humans should be judged solely according to the actions of their free will. However Calvin believes that this diminishes the omnipotence of God over all (238). He counters their argument by saying that the cause of their perdition is in God’s predestination but is also in themselves. Why God predestined it cannot be known, however what can be know is that it was just because it displays his glory (240). Thus Calvin’s response to this objection is that it in fact is “consistent with equity, an equity, indeed unknown to us, but most certain” (241).

Calvinism bears false witness against God.

The third objection says that the doctrine implies false things about God. The doctrine falsely implies, against the witness of scripture, that is God “an acceptor of persons” (241) because He does not do justice equally. If it is true, as Calvin argues that merit is not involved in election, then there must be some other cause for which humans are predestined. Calvin’s objectors argue that if God does not elect based off of merit he must elect based upon some other characteristic of the person, for instance wealth, power, rank, beauty, etc. If God were to do this He would be “an acceptor of persons,” this however is unscriptural. So according to Calvin’s opponents, predestination makes God an acceptor of persons, scripture says that God is not an acceptor of persons, thus predestination must be false. Calvin says that this is not so. God inflicts “due punishment on those whom he reprobates, and bestows unmerited favor on those whom he calls” (243). Election is unmerited, so God is not an “acceptor of persons.” In predestining humans, God would be just in punishing all, and he is merciful in choosing to show favor to some. To choose to show grace to some is not unjust, it is merciful.

Calvinism discourages holy living.

The final objection is that the doctrine of predestination encourages license and discourages zeal for holiness. Calvin says that this is not so because the mysterious doctrine humbles us and causes us to be in awe of God’s mercy and justice (244). Because we are humbled at God’s justice and mercy we are stimulated to aspire to the end for which we are elected, namely holiness in life (244). Thus the doctrine does not encourage license and sloth, rather it encourages a zeal for God’s holiness.

Conclusion

Having seen how he responds to these four objections it is clear that Calvin believes that the doctrine is not unjust. It is not unjust because God wills it. God’s will is the rule of righteousness, so whatever he wills is just. To say that predestination, a doctrine clearly taught in scripture, is unjust is to say that there is a rule of righteousness above God. To say that humans know that rule of righteousness which is above God better than God himself knows it is impious. Although according to human standards it might seem unjust, Calvin clearly believes that it is not. For “divine justice is too high to be scanned by human measure or comprehended by the feebleness of human intellect” (235). Thus predestination is not unjust because God willed it, any objection to its justice is an act of pride ignoring the mystery and inscrutableness of God’s will.

(Note: All quotes come from the anthology, The Protestant Reformation edited by Hans Hildebrand.)

What is Predestination?

Yesterday I started a several day long mini-series on the Calvinist version of predestination. Today I want to tackle the question – “According to John Calvin what is predestination?”

What is Predestination?

Calvin acknowledges that this doctrine has some difficulties, he says that the notion that God out of his own pleasure offers salvation to some and not to others causes “many great and difficult questions” many which seem “inexplicable” (215). However he believes that despite some of the apparent difficulties that this doctrine might have, it is a necessary doctrine and it is a biblical doctrine. Calling this doctrine a “secret thing of God” (216), it must be taught because it is found in God’s word. Since it is revealed in God’s word, God must have revealed it for a reason, namely because it “would be conducive to our interest and welfare” (216). This notion that it is a revealed “secret of God” and it must be taught is meant to answer two types of people. The first type of person is the person who attempts to figure God and his ways out. They “rush forward securely and confidently” into inquiring into the secrets of God, these people go beyond what is revealed in scripture thus they are foolish. The other type of person is the person who wants the doctrine to be rarely if ever taught. These people ignore that whatever is delivered in scripture must not be kept from the faithful (218). Both of these points lead us to see that Calvin believes that the doctrine of predestination is clearly taught in scripture.

Calvin believes that this doctrine is seen in God’s election of Abraham. He also believes that it is displayed in the election of Abraham’s family, since God rejected some and kept others even from those among Abraham’s family (220). Finally, Calvin also believes that God elects individuals to which He will offer salvation (222). For instance he cites Paul as declaring that “we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” (225). He also cites Paul’s letter to Timothy saying that God has called us according to his own purpose. He also makes use of John’s Gospel, to show his doctrine of election (227). Thus he believes that “Scripture clearly proves that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once and for all those who it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation and…to doom to destruction” (223).

“By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every human”

So it is clear that Calvin believes that the doctrine of predestination is revealed by God in Scripture; but what is the doctrine? Calvin says that “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every human” (220). The elect are preordained to be adopted as “sons by the heavenly Father” attaining “salvation and immortality” (3.24.5), while the reprobate are preordained to eternal damnation. Calvin makes it clear that he believes in double predestination, thus it is not only the elect that are predestined but also the reprobate. He believes that it is illogical to say that there is only election and not reprobation (230); for “whom God passes by for election he reprobates” (230).

Briefly we should note that for Calvin election is not simply foreknowledge. He believes that God foreknows the elect because he has chosen the elect, it is not the other way around (238). Calvin accuses those who subordinate foreknowledge to election of teaching election by works. The foreknowledge view states that God distinguishes between individuals based upon his foreknowledge of how much merit a person will acquire, then God elects or dooms people based upon their merits that he foresees (224). Calvin argues that this is unscriptural. To do this is to “invert Paul’s order” (225) for Paul says that we are elected to be holy, not because we are holy (225). Having seen what Calvin believes about predestination, we are in a position to see why he believes that it is not unjust, we will do this tomorrow.

(Note: All quotes come from the anthology, The Protestant Reformation edited by Hans Hildebrand.)

Scattered Thoughts on Theology and Culture…

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