Russell and Duenes

Archive for January 2012

How Do You Reconcile the Death of a Nine-Year-Old with a Merciful and Loving God?

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One of my faithful commentor’s asked the following question, and rather than answer it in the comments section, I thought I’d put my answer out here. He writes,

Recently, a family that lives near me (I do know know them, but I know people who do) was traveling on Christmas day to visit grandma. As they drove, a tree fell on the car, killing a popular and much-liked 9-year-old girl, and breaking the back of the father. (He seems to be recovering somewhat.)

My question was: as a religious believer, how do you reconcile this “Act of God” (to use the legal term) with the idea of a merciful and loving God?

Let me begin by noting that the man who asks this question is an avowed atheist. So, let us begin by taking his atheism as true and think of the question first from that standpoint.

There is no God, and so human beings, like everything else in this universe, are just conglomerations of chemicals and compounds who have no souls, no reason for existing, no purpose,  and no eternal destinies. Also, concepts such as “mercy” and “love” are absolutely meaningless because mere mixtures of chemicals do not, by definition, show mercy, love, or anything else. They merely react, much like a giant bottle of Mountain Dew when one shakes it up. Further, there is no suffering because chemical compounds do not suffer, and so because there is no God, what we call “feeling bad at the death of someone” is not really that. Rather, it is really just certain molecular reactions happening because certain temperatures and conditions happened to come about and some synapses started firing in the brain, which leads to chemicals being released and…it’s all very scientific.

But wait, all this means that on atheistic grounds, no one has any right to feel bad about anything. There’s no cosmic justice in front of us, no one who is going to set wrongs right. There are no wrongs to be set right; there is just brute chemical reductionism, and then we turn to fertilizer to be eaten by worms. That is what atheism means. So there is really is no problem, given this worldview. The girl was a chemical composition that, as Darwin put it, came into existence purely by random mutations and accidental processes, and so her chemical composition simply changed after nine years (actually, the nine year old, given atheism, wasn’t the same person she was 7 years earlier because every person’s physical body has entirely new cells every 7 years or so) and she did what we’re all destined to do, without any purpose or explanation for it all. As Douglas Wilson has said, “There is no soundtrack to consistent atheism. No swelling violins in the background but rather stark, everlasting silence.” So that’s the first part of my answer.

Now of course, God is there, so whereas the consistent atheist can have no problem with nine-year-olds dying (but many inconsistent atheists, unwilling to come to terms with their atheism, do), I find myself having to wrestle with how a loving and merciful God can not only allow nine-year-old’s to die, but indeed, bring about their deaths.

Suffice it to say that whole books have been written on this topic, and I find my time and space limitations here inadequate to address the question, but I’ll do my best. One should speak with fear and trembling when purporting to give any indication of the mind of God on such matters, but I find the best and most humble guide is to go with what God has revealed.

So my first thought about how a loving and merciful God could allow such a tragedy to occur is to turn it around and ask a different question: How come the nine-year old, and everyone else, received so much mercy and love from a holy God against whom she, and everyone else, is in high rebellion? In other words, the original question starts from the wrong place. Life is a gift, which God is under no obligation to give. Not only is life a gift, but the parents, food, clothing, shelter, love, and care that sustain our lives are likewise all great and precious gifts. And they are gifts from a God that the Bible says is a holy, righteous, and awesome God who is without stain or sin. Why is God so merciful to me…and to the nine-year-old?

My second thought is: Why does anyone, particularly nine-year-0lds, die in the first place? From whence comes death? God says that death is the “wages” of our sin and rebellion against him. When the man and woman sinned, they plunged the entire creation into darkness, destruction, and death. This is what we have wrought. The blame cannot be laid at God’s feet. God is gracious and merciful and provided for every conceivable human need and desire, yet man sought to be as God, to arrogate to himself what he would and would not do; as such, he brought ruin and judgment. Yet even in judgment, God is loving and merciful. God opens his hand to all living things, God “sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” God “causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust.” But death comes to us all because that is the penalty for violating God’s law and for treating God as though he were a mere trifle. We wonder sometimes why there is so much suffering, degradation, squalor, and death in our world. We are rightly horrified by it, because it was not meant to be like this. Sin is not the condition in which God made man to live, and yet we chose it.

Finally (at least for this post), God has not visited anything on us that he has not undergone himself. I suppose God could have looked down on us in our rebellion, sin, and death, and pronounced final and inexorable judgment. But no! God indeed came down here himself, became a man, laid aside his divine privileges, and willingly endured the tortures of death by Roman crucifixion. This is love. This is mercy. This is justice. This is where hope is found. This means that there is the possibility of eternal life beyond the grave. God laid upon Christ, the God-man, the punishment for our rebellion, and in so doing, brought redemption for all who bank their hope upon him. That is the hope I have for that nine-year-old, and many others like her. God is loving and merciful because “he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.” “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” All things are made new in Christ, and so death no longer has the victory. God saw what sin had done to us, and he allowed himself to suffer the wages of that sin – death – only to rise three days later and victory over sin and death. And he promises this resurrection life to all those who put their confidence in him.

So this is how I reconcile a loving and merciful God with the present reality of death. Death is indeed a great enemy, and we rightly fear it and loathe it. And if there is no God, then none of it has any meaning. But through the humble submission of Jesus Christ to His Father’s will, the grave has been conquered, and God’s love is eternally available to you, and me, and all who will call upon Him.

-D

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Written by Michael Duenes

January 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

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-D

Written by Michael Duenes

January 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Duenes, Movies

It’s a Girl

with 4 comments

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

January 24, 2012 at 2:38 pm

How Does One Know that a Text Means What One Thinks It Does? Part 2

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I think this question is worth illustrating from a particular interpretive controversy I’ve dealt with in my own life. Thus, I take the topic of women’s and men’s roles in the church and home.

I hold that men and women are equal in dignity, worth, and status. Both men and women are created fully in the image of God, both have equal access by faith in Christ to all of the blessings of salvation in Christ, and thus, both are fully children of God, adopted into God’s family. By union with Christ, both men and women have been raised up with Christ and seated with Him at God’s right hand (Eph. 2:1-10). However, I also hold that husbands have headship over their wives, that is, they properly exercise authority over them (1 Cor. 11:3-16; Eph. 5:21-33; 1 Peter 3:1-7; Colossians 3:18), and I believe that women are not to teach men or exercise authority over them in the church (1 Tim. 2:8-15). Thus, women should not be elders and overseers in the church. God has designed men and women such that they wonderfully complement each other by having different roles and gifts. Neither is inferior or superior, but God did not ordain some kind of bland sameness for men and women.

Such a view does not go unopposed today, whether in the church or in the culture at-large. Whether it is a majority theological view probably depends on how one is counting, but it matters not. What matters is that I arrived at this interpretation of Scripture by some means, and I believe I am correct in this interpretation. How did I arrive at it? And upon what basis am I confident that my interpretation is correct?

As an undergrad at UCLA, I had never considered the issue of “men’s and women’s roles” in the church. I didn’t even know it was a biblical controversy, for I had never read the texts that touched on it. The issue came up for me when our Christian group on campus sponsored a lecture in our dorms entitled: “Is Christianity Sexist?” The woman who gave the talk argued, quite naturally, that it isn’t and she supported this contention mainly with her interpretations of Genesis 1-2, the Proverbs, the way Jesus treated women, and some selected texts from the New Testament letters. I thought she had covered things quite well, but when I asked one of my non-Christian dorm mates what she thought of it, she quipped: “That’s her interpretation.” Somehow this sparked me to consider whether the speaker had done a good job of addressing the topic. How could I find out?

I turned to a little article that one of my professor’s wrote on women, slavery, and power back in the first century. He argued that women now had the same roles and power that men had in the church, and he based this on a better coverage of texts than the woman speaker had. I read his article carefully and then read all of the New Testament texts on the topic that I could find. Then I went and visited this professor in his office hours – the only UCLA professor I ever visited in his office – and asked him to clarify his article for me. He did so, and recommended a book to me for further study.

The book was entitled, Women, Authority and the Bible, by Alvera Mickelson. This book was full of scholarly articles from modern Protestant writers, defending the view that men and women were entitled to the exact same roles within the church. The book provided an exegetical and hermeneutical exposition of every biblical passage on the topic and general theological reflections on as well. The authors appealed to some Patristic writers such as John Crysostom for support of their arguments, as well as some Reformed theologians. I was unpersuaded. But why?

Was it the weight of opinion going against such a view? That was part of it. As best I can tell, in the central theological tradition of Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, the view has always been that men and women have complementary roles in the church and home, that men are ordained with the leadership role, to be exercised in a godly manner, and women are called to submit to such godly leadership. Of course, I had some basis for believing that the weight of historical theology was on my side, namely, I trusted that I was accurately reading the primary and secondary sources. I trusted that they could, in fact, be accurately read.

But equally important was my experience of reading the biblical texts themselves. On a common sense reading, they seemed to be saying that men and women have distinct roles. But I thought I should go deeper, so I got a hold of a book entitled, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. This book was essentially the counterpoint to the previous book I’d read, structured exactly the same, but taking the complementarian viewpoint. I was persuaded. Of course there were unanswered questions that remained, but reading the exegetical, historical, and social arguments in this book clinched it for me. Why? Didn’t both books appeal to the Church Fathers? Indeed they did. Didn’t both books claim to be giving the correct understanding of the development of this doctrine down through the ages? Yes. Weren’t both arguing that their expositions of the biblical texts were correct? Of course.

Perhaps I was persuaded by the complementarian view because my own personal biases predisposed me to agree with it. I don’t doubt that this played a part. Indeed, since those days, my experience in this world has only confirmed my belief in the correctness of the complementarian view. But I’d like to think that more than my predispositions led to my convictions. In my view, the complementarian interpretations of the biblical and extra-biblical texts themselves were better. Yet I must have had some basis for judging them to be better. What was that basis exactly? This question leads back to the question I raised in my previous post on this. An involved answer would be quite involved indeed. But I think the short answer is, based on my understanding of human language and communication as it comes to us through written texts set in historical epochs, I find the complementarian view to have more to recommend it. I certainly give weight to what others before me have thought, and further, I would not even have an understanding of human communication in texts unless some people had transmitted that knowledge to me over the course of my life.

So I guess what I’m saying is that everyone is dependent on some prior authority or authorities for his or her understanding of any particular human language or communication. Yet at some point, we all reach our conclusions about what texts mean based on our understanding of the diction, grammar, syntax, tone, and structure used in that text, and our understandings of these things are based on the greater or lesser influences of various authorities on such texts. Somehow we are persuaded of things, and we do not always know how or why? Indeed, there is something spiritual about it.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

January 23, 2012 at 8:15 am

How Does One Know that a Text Means What One Thinks It Does? Part 1

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An old college acquaintance commented and asked me the following two questions:

1) When your interpretation of Scripture diverts from the interpretation of a Church Father – or what’s more, the consensual opinion of all the Fathers – and/or from the official interpretation of a certain passage by the Catholic Church, on what exactly should I base my confidence that your interpretation is the correct one, and theirs the false?

2) In the case when other modern Biblical scholars might dissent from your opinion, how is one to judge who is correct? Surely all would claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.

These are important questions; dare I say, as important as any in theology. For even if people could agree that ultimate authority resides in a text, or texts, another big hurdle awaits, namely, how does one know that the texts mean what one thinks they do? That is really what these questions are asking, though there are a lot of layers to the above questions. So let me try to take them in turn.

First, some disclaimers. I am not a scholar of historical theology; neither of Patristics, Medieval, Reformation, or Protestant Scholasticism. So I make no claims of expertise. I’m also not a scholar of biblical literature and language. I have good facility with the New Testament Greek, but I haven’t done much with Hebrew since the three semesters I took back in the late 90s. I’m not “up” on a lot of the technical literature, though I understand its semantics. All of this, however, may not be central to addressing the above questions, since I believe them to be more hermeneutical and epistemological than theological. On to the questions then.

My first thought is a rather elementary one: Since when has truth been decided by majority opinion? The Scriptures say, “Let God be true though every man be a liar.” Truth, whatever it is, is not arrived at always by consensus (though I think consensus is very impotant, as I point out below) Let’s say that the Church Fathers unequivocally agree on a particular interpretation of a certain text, and my interpretation differs from theirs; does that mean that theirs must be correct simply because they all agree? My question to my commenter might be this: Was Jesus offering interpretations that diverted from the majority view of his day? Indeed, on many occasions. On what should I base my confidence that he was right and the Pharisees wrong, since the Pharisees had a consensus against Jesus? What about Paul? My position is not that we jettison the opinions of the Church Fathers. Far from it. We should give their opinions more weight than we do. They were closer to the original language, text, and culture of the biblical writers. We ought not to “divert” from their views without some sound reasons for doing so, but we also ought not to say, in my view, that because they were closer to the originals, we ought to follow them absolutely.

Which leads into my second point: When speaking about “the interpretation of a Church Father” or “the consensual opinion of all the Fathers,” doesn’t this suppose that one is correctly intepreting the Fathers? But how does one know that he is correctly interpreting the Fathers? Both Reformation theologians and Roman Catholic theologians appealed to the Patristics on a wide scale in their theological disputes. So where is the “consensus?” Mustn’t my commenter rely on other authorities subsequent to the Fathers to confirm his interpretations of the Fathers? Why not rely on the Protestant ones rather than the Roman Catholic ones? And mustn’t my commenter rely on other authorities to confirm those subsequent authorities? You see the problem. When one speaks of “the consensual opinion of all the Fathers,” upon what basis is he claiming the Fathers form a consensus? His own readings of the Fathers? And how would this be different than my saying that my own private reading of the Scriptures is correct? The same questions arise when one says that they follow the word of Popes or councils or whatever. A particular exegetical and hermeneutical methodology must be followed in interpreting them as well, many of whom never wrote a word of modern English. And the particular interpretive methodology that my reader adopts must also be chosen on some basis. What basis?

Now, I doubt that my commenter is claiming that merely and solely his own private readings of the Fathers are the basis for his assertions about any Patristic consensus. Rather, he would likely admit that he found his way to his views by being influenced by a certain community of others: scholars, priests, laymen, commentaries, pastors, friends and the like. But even the opinions of these people must be weighed. How does one weigh them? Now, I’m not arguing for some kind of radical skepticism which claims that we cannot really know anything about anything since we’re all finite knowers, biased and conditioned by our own historical contexts. That is to cede too much. Nevertheless, if one is going to claim that he follows the consensual opinion of the Patristical writers, then he will have to give an account of how he comes to “know” what they teach. And if he says that he knows because he follows the authoritative teaching of the Popes and councils down through the centuries – the official Catholic teaching – then he will have to give the same account. In all likelihood, he is relying on the work of others, and he, like me, is weighing what others say and weighing his own reading of texts. How to judge this weighing process is complicated, and I’m not trying to make it simple, or negate the notion of “knowing.” I don’t doubt that we can indeed know, with a fair amount of accuracy, what the Church Fathers taught on a good many biblical texts and topics. But how we come to “know” it can happen through a process that even we may not be able to fully describe, or at least I can’t.

Third, again, we could ask ourselves about lots of authorities. How come we don’t accept the Muslim interpretation of the New Testament? There are tens of millions of them that interpret it differently than I do. Why not take their view? Why not take the general Mormon view? Why not take the view of the Protestants over the last 400 years? Is there such a “Protestant” view? Is there one accurate view of “the official interpretation by the Catholic Church?” If so, from whence comes disagreement over that teaching, for surely disagreement there is, as surely as there are denominational disagreements over “official interpretations” in the Protestant churches. One cannot simply say, “I follow the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, and a lot of people agree with me, so I have a basis for my understanding of biblical texts,” but a Protestant like me is simply following “my own opinion.” In the end, everyone is an individual interpreter of every text, weighing and making exegetical and hermeneutical decisions based on certain criteria and methodology. As Christians, we are told that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, but as my commenter astutely points out: “Surely all would claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.” In the end, at least from out point of view, there has to be some subjective element in all of this.

Fourth, I think this should lead us to humility in dealing with interpretations of others, particularly  if those interpretations have been held by a good many others, for a good many centuries, who were closer to the first century than us. Thus, if I’m reading Romans 4:1-8 and trying to accurately understand its objective teaching on justification, should I just reflexively take Luther or Calvin or some other reformer’s view if it disagrees with, say, Tertullian or Gregory of Nazianzus? Not necessarily. Although one does read a point where one comes to see things through a particular theological lens, as my commenter no doubt does. The point being, if the Patristics, or even the Roman Catholic Church, have a teaching on something, and we can come to know what it is, we ought not to throw it away without so much as a thought. I do not think the Reformers who broke from the Roman Catholic church cast off their prior understandings on a lark, and they were right not to do so. And they did not do their theologizing in a vacuum, because no one does. Likewise, I do not attempt to do my theologizing in isolation. I have not merely sat down with the Scriptures and come up with my own private views. My views are formed by the influence of others, and hopefully by the Holy Spirit. Are my views as well formed as they could be, were I to do more prayerful study of historical theology, modern commentary, and the Scriptures? Surely not, but we are all in theological process.

So how does one judge “who is correct?” I’m not sure I can give a full answer. I’d like to have a better answer, and as such, I’m grateful for the question. I suppose I try to follow Luther’s advice, to be convinced “by Scripture or clear reasoning.” I seek to test and evaluate my interpretations by others, both modern and ancient. I try to listen to both Protestants and Catholics where I can (and believe me, there are many teachings of the Roman Catholic church that I adhere to better than many Roman Catholics). I try to put my interpretations out there for others in my context and community to evaluate. I seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit. I ought to repent and follow Luther when he says,

“Your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory—not for yours or any other person’s—He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words. For no master of the divine words exists except the Author of these words, as He says: ‘They shall be all taught of God’ (John 6:45). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and ability and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit” (Ewald M. Plass, compiler, What Luther Says: An Anthology, Vol. 3, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 77.)

Of course I welcome any and all comment on this, for I hope to better approach the true knowledge of God, and I believe these issues are crucial toward that end. Doubtless if I have contradicted myself or wandered into a specious or untenable assertion, I should like to know it.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

January 15, 2012 at 12:45 pm