Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Commentariat Speaks (1)

As long as it lasts, the phenomenon of blog commentary has provided us with a whole new way of engaging with one another. Sure, it’s a style of interaction with inherent limitations and attendant frustrations, but it has its moments now and then.

On the downside, reaction to blog posts is rarely deep or seriously considered, can be kneejerky and emotional, and is easily lost in a growing stream of similar reflexive expressions that disappear from view and public consciousness as quickly as the blog’s author can bang out something new for his/her readers to huff and puff about. Further, having expressed an opinion, a commenter often wanders off to Internet Parts Unknown, to work or to bed, leaving readers unable to ask, “Hey, wait, what did you mean by THAT?”

In the plus column, everybody gets a voice including the trolls (wait, is that a plus?), the hard questions (sometimes) get addressed, and a whole range of IQs, levels of spiritual maturity, ages and experience sets are deployed in the interest of exploring a subject.

Let’s Learn Something

But whether we’re reading truth or error, if we can bring a level of familiarity with the word of God to the table (or even the willingness to go looking), we’re always in a position to learn something:

Jonathan got my attention with this (fairly off-topic) reaction to a post on the evolution of evangelical complementarianism when he inexplicably jumped into Romans 1:
“ ‘...what may be known about God is plain to [us] because God has made it plain to [us]’ — Rom 1:19

The context of that verse is that God is talking about the nature He created being the full testament of His Being that can be comprehended by the human intellect. Theology, of any kind, is heresy at the point it purports to provide a comprehensive picture of God’s full nature. Humans lack the capacity for such a thing and any attempt to theologize God is rooted in sinful pride.

Even the concept of the Trinity developed from a defensive metaphor against the Arian heresy and morphed into its own heresy upon the demise of Arianism. Rom 2 is very clear that even the most illiterate savage is capable of grasping the nature of God equal[ly] to the most brilliant philosopher. As all our righteousness is as filthy rags in comparison to the holiness of God so is our intellect as a muddy puddle in comparison to His wisdom and majesty.”
Hmm. Let’s think about this for a second. 

Unrighteous Truth Suppressors, Inc.

It seems to me Jonathan goes off the rails the moment he quotes Romans 1:19 substituting “us” for “them”, and follows it by presuming to talk about context.

If context is important (and it surely is), it is even more vital to ensure you know who is actually being addressed by any particular portion of scripture. Pronouns are small, sure, but no part of speech is without its significance. “Us” is not “them”.

The pronoun “them” in Romans 1 refers back to “men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” in the previous verse. Yes, at one point in time that was all of us. Fair enough. However, at the moment Paul writes, it is a statement demonstrably inapplicable to both the writer and many of those who would receive his letter. These were “loved by God and called to be saints”. Their faith was “proclaimed in all the world”.

In short, not the unrighteous truth-suppressors of verse 18.

“We” Are Not “They”

I would argue, I think legitimately, that Jonathan’s substitution of “us” for “them” is equally inapplicable to those reading the book of Romans who love the Lord Jesus today. We are not “they”.

If Jonathan is trying to make the point that systematic theology is a bad thing for Christians to engage in, rooted in sinful pride and presumption, Romans 1 is an awful place to start. It simply does not address us.

Jonathan says nature is the full testament of God’s being that can be comprehended by the human intellect. But that is not what the apostle Paul is saying. Paul says two specific truths are out there to be gleaned from nature, and man is responsible to draw the correct conclusions from the evidence:
“His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
Amen. So God is powerful, and God is of good character (“divinity” or “Godhood” referring to God’s character rather than his essential being, as William MacDonald aptly puts it). All men and women get that at some level, at least until they suppress, knead, massage and rationalize that God-given knowledge away in their own self interest.

The Limits of Natural Revelation

But to suggest the Christian’s knowledge of God is limited to these two statements is to miss the point of not only the New Testament but the Old as well, in which specific revelation after specific revelation is given to the people of God about God’s nature going far beyond what may be inferred from creation:
  • How do you get “I Jehovah your God am a jealous God” from nature? I can’t.
  • Where is it written in the stars that God is eternal? It is certainly abundantly clear that he has existed vastly longer than I have, but nature cannot effectively demonstrate that he has no beginning and no end at all. That requires the plain statement of the Holy Spirit.
  • While the general goodness of God is observable in nature (“He sends rain on the just and the unjust”), the ultimate justice of God is not so easily inferred from “nature, red in tooth and claw”.
Nature provides man with insight about God and makes him responsible for his attitude toward God, but nature is far from the “full testament of His Being that can be comprehended by the human intellect”, because the Christian’s intellect is informed by the Spirit of God himself.

The Place of the Intellect

This is not a new concept. The Jew of Jesus’ day understood the Torah to teach that God was to be loved with the mind, not just the heart. God appeals to Israel in Isaiah’s day, “Let us reason together”. Hebrews quotes the promise of God that the New Covenant entails God’s law written “on their minds”.

The proper place of the Christian intellect in understanding the nature of God is in obedient service to the Spirit of God through the teaching of the word of God, and it is NOT limited by natural revelation. Not at all.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual … we have the mind of Christ.”
Wow. Just … wow. When the Christian uses his mind under the direction of the Spirit of God, he is in a unique position with respect to knowledge of the Divine, one not remotely contemplated in Roman 1. In this Jonathan is correct: the illiterate savage taught by the Spirit of God is the superior of the most brilliant pagan philosopher.

Just one caveat though.

The Big Caveat

We are called to love God with all our minds. We are not called to love him with our imaginations. By that I don’t mean that we should fail to love God with everything we are and have, but I mean that we cannot love him fancifully. Historically, that has turned out badly. The psalmist records God’s rebuke of the religious wicked:
“You thought that I was one like yourself.”
They recited God’s statutes and mouthed his covenants, but they had learned nothing of God’s true nature from the things they read and even memorized. Instead, they fancied God as a bigger, more powerful version of themselves: driven by the same shabby motives, subject to the same pathetic impulses, prone to the same feeble compromises. In this they were way off the mark. Intellect had given way to imagination.

Jonathan is right: Our intellect is merely a muddy puddle in comparison to God’s wisdom and majesty. But that muddy puddle reflects the glory of God, and the employment of our intellects in his service through the strength and wisdom he provides has a tendency over time to clear away the mud.

1 comment :

  1. I'm late into this topic, but yeah, I agree, Tom. Right on.

    I suspect Jonathan may have been influenced by the modern twisters of the Calvinist false doctrine of "Total Depravity," who go beyond the word of Scripture to conclude that the human mind is so utterly evil and foul that it simply cannot understand anything about God, and thus has to have knowledge of God forced into it by "Irresistible Grace" (false doctrine number 2) -- an error which comes from doing exactly what you point out: reading passages like Romans 1 without using the Biblical metric of sorting out a difference between the unsaved, the Jews and the Church of God (see, for example, 1 Cor. 10:32) and thus (to borrow a phrase from Tertius) "reading other people's mail."

    Right context is so vital to interpretation, isn't it?