Tuesday, March 08, 2022

God-Shaped Heart Surgery [Part 1]

Timothy Jennings is a Tennessee-based psychiatrist who is convinced Christians don’t really know God as they should. His 2017 book The God-Shaped Heart is perhaps best described as a minor controversy: minor because it failed to crack ECPA’s Top 100 bestseller list in any of its first five years of publication; controversial because Jennings takes a view of substitutionary atonement that rubs a fair number of his critics the wrong way, this reader among them.

If you read the reviews, it’s evident those who love the book really love it. And to be fair, there are some useful thoughts amidst the yawning mineshafts. You just don’t necessarily want to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have his or her feet firmly planted on solid rock.

Here are some of those useful ideas:

1/ The Distinction Between Design Law and Imposed Law

Jennings makes a helpful distinction between two kinds of law: design law and imposed law. Design law includes things as disparate as gravity, love, motion, health, mathematics, friction, thermodynamics, authority structures, liberty, exertion, and so on — principles intrinsic to the proper functioning of our world and human society as designed by God. Imposed law refers to both God’s commands and all other codes, rules, regulations and ordinances that must be enforced with penalties.

Design Law

Design laws are not punitive and God does not enforce them personally. Rather, they are the governing principles under which reality operates. They simply work the way they work, in accordance with the character of God, and wise men and women learn to live in harmony with their principles.

God set design laws in motion when he brought the world into being, and the consequences of obeying or violating design laws are baked into the cake. So those who cast their bread on the waters will find it again after many days, and those who refuse to be thankful to God find their thinking becoming futile and their hearts darkened. It’s not that men and women are subjected to specific punishments or rewards by God for obeying or disobeying design laws, it’s that certain behaviors inevitably produce certain results. People who drink too much tend to vomit. People who eat too much will get fat. People who worship the right Object are thereby transformed, but those who worship the wrong things also experience transformation.

Some design laws are the subject of God’s commandments. Such commands reveal the operating principle behind the design so it can be understood and applied for the good of mankind. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a command, but it does not come with directions about jail terms in case we fail to comply. The benefits for obedience and negative consequences for violation follow naturally from a regular pattern of choices. Generally speaking, loving people get love back and hateful people draw haters. It’s intrinsic to the design. Likewise, don’t expect the Lord to clobber you if you ignore his instruction to “take the lowest place at the table” — at least not in this life. The benefits of obedience to good advice are their own reward.

Other times, design laws are discovered through trial and error. Outside the Garden, Adam and Eve had to figure out for themselves which plants were good for them and which were not. Some that looked edible were in accordance with God’s design and some were not. There is no indication God gave humanity a checklist to work with. After that, they had to figure out how much to eat of each thing that didn’t disagree with them. Much debate over the course of human history has concerned what works and what doesn’t in the human body. Apart from Israel’s dietary laws, we have had to figure these things out for ourselves.

Sticking with the first man and woman, I suspect Jennings would agree that “When you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will certainly die” is also an expression of design law, though introduced in the form of a commandment. The “Don’t do it” in the Garden has the practical force of “Don’t do it because it will kill you; it’s in the very nature of the act” rather than “Don’t do it because I will kill you if you do.” If you wonder about that, remember that Adam and Eve had their first encounter with death when they experienced shame. The fig leaf loincloths they made are a major tell. Shame was already occurring before God pronounced a single curse on the new order of things they had created with their rebellion. The law of death had taken effect and was influencing mankind.

Imposed Law

Imposed law is always revealed through rules, regulations and ordinances. But where design law operates on its own, imposed law requires enforcement. The Flood is imposed law, as is Babel, or the plagues of Egypt. Repent or die, disperse or be dispersed, let my son Israel go or lose your own son, Pharaoh. Likewise, stoning blasphemers, executing murderers, putting lepers outside the camp, barring defiled Israelites from participating in the sacrifices and ordering thieves to repay more than they had stolen are all imposed law. Israel imposed these penalties, distancing rules and sentences at the command of God.

The logic of design laws can be readily observed if one pays sufficient attention (hold your hand over a stove element for a while if you doubt that), but certain imposed laws may not seem logical to those on whom they are imposed. Consider: why was Israel forbidden from using two kinds of fabrics in the same garment, or from pairing unlike animals in plowing? It certainly had nothing to do with the laws of nature. No dire natural consequences would follow from such choices. The command not to do so was more symbolic than self-evidently pragmatic. We might even say, from our limited perspective, that it was arbitrary. We could certainly say it was imposed.

The distinction between design law and imposed law is a useful one, and Jennings is on to something here.

2/ The Seven Levels of Moral Decision Making

Lawrence Kohlberg lists six stages of moral development based on scripture. Jennings adopts the Kohlberg scheme and adds a seventh. They are as follows:

  1. Reward and punishment (the most basic level, at which small children and lower animals operate);
  2. Marketplace exchange (contract law or quid pro quo);
  3. Social conformity (peer pressure);
  4. Law and order (codified rules and punishments);
  5. Love for others (fulfilling the law incidentally rather than by checklist); and
  6. Principle-based living (living in harmony with God’s design and intention).

Jennings’ seventh stage is:

  1. Understanding friend of God (intelligent cooperation with God in pursuing his goals).

Levels one to four are responses to imposed laws, while levels five to seven reflect responses to design laws. It should be obvious that it is morally preferable to operate in awareness of and harmony with design laws, rather than to merely conform to laws negotiated or imposed on you. Love is the fulfillment of the law.

These stages have been criticized by some as judgmental, but they are really just observational. For example, I may note that you are only operating at level 4 in a particular situation, but that need not be an occasion for a swollen head, especially if I remind myself that even as a Christian, I often operate below level four. Peter was operating at level 3 when Paul corrected him in public for withdrawing from Gentile believers to please Judaizers.

3/ Relational God vs. Angry God Enforcing a Legal System

Jennings’ concern to get us thinking about Christ as physician rather than judge, and to emphasize God as relational rather than perpetually angry, is an important one, and his emphasis is much needed today. When we lose sight of the reasons for dealing with sin, thinking of it only punitively, we have lost the plot.

4/ The Tabernacle as a Play Enacted

Jennings’ granular exploration of the tabernacle and its significance in relation to Christ is not something I’ve seen a lot of outside Plymouth Brethren circles. His explanation is very good, although there is always some element of fancy with these things where scripture doesn’t unambiguously interpret scripture. His main point is that the service of the tabernacle was designed to teach Israel important truths about the character of Christ and about his work in saving his people. Whether it succeeded broadly in this is open to debate given the nation’s history, but the Israelite remnant surely entered into something remarkable which the rest of the nation missed. The fact that there were Annas and Simeons in the first century strongly suggests the lessons were learned by those who sought them out and prized them.

5/ Christians Confuse Design Law with Imposed Law

My favorite bit of the book, though, is Jennings’ observation that far too many Christians regularly confuse design law for imposed law. This is sadly and absolutely true. Many believe God is directly imposing judgment on them (or worse, on others) when they are simply experiencing the normal consequences of living in a fallen world, where bad genetics, bad decisions, apparently-random natural events and the absolute malice of the evil one are the cause of much or most of our grief.

These poor folks become convinced they are the targets of an angry God’s outpoured wrath. As a result, they have a severely impaired view of God’s love and even less ability to live it out or pass it on. They have a tendency to give the rest of the world what they think they are receiving, and become angry, legalistic and judgmental instead of loving and generous. Alternatively, they may become terrified, miserable and superstitious.

What Jennings does not point out (and I think is worth considering) is that this common misunderstanding of God’s character is in large part a consequence of the rise in popularity of Reform Theology, which teaches that God does absolutely everything deliberately and personally right down to the atomic level. No wonder so many Christians think God killed their baby when a virus or congenital heart ailment did, or that God sent twisters to destroy the American Midwest a few years back, or that COVID is an outpouring of divine judgment. Such thinking is packaged right into the Reform Neo-Calvinist view of divine sovereignty-as-micromanagement.

At any rate, I am grateful to Mr. Jennings for raising this issue and giving solid examples to which we can all relate.

That’s all very positive. However, I do have a number of non-trivial concerns with The God-Shaped Heart, which I will get into tomorrow.

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