Wednesday, March 09, 2022

God-Shaped Heart Surgery [Part 2]

The God-Shaped Heart by Timothy Jennings has quite a bit to commend it. Yesterday I detailed five of its better features. If you haven’t read that post, some terms I will use in today’s post will not make much sense.

Unfortunately, there are also a few yawning mineshafts to be avoided in Jennings’ book, some of which are more obvious than others. For this reason, I would be cautious about commending it despite the fact that it contains some helpful observations about God’s law and a useful analysis of the various ways in which human beings may respond to it.

In short, Christians who lack the ability to assess Jennings critically in the light of scripture should probably steer clear.

What follows is an examination of the worst issues with The God-Shaped Heart. I am going to leave out Jennings’ rejection of substitutionary atonement. That’s a significant problem, but it’s also one that other critics of the book have dismantled at length. There is no pressing need to recreate their work here.

1/ Jennings Consistently Conflates Christianity with Christendom

Stacking the Deck

Jennings says Christianity is in a major mess with respect to how it views God. He makes his case from a pile of scary-sounding data, much of it pulled from pollster George Barna’s popular surveys. In those surveys, the Barna Group defines “Christian” on the basis of self-identification. 70-82% of Americans consider themselves Christian.

Small wonder, then, when Jennings tells us that “Christian” and “non-Christian” households are no different statistically with respect to the incidence of domestic violence against women, teen pregnancy, alcohol use disorders, pornography viewing, etc. Of course they are not! Jennings has just defined almost 4/5 of the country as Christian when the vast majority of these folks have no relationship with Christ at all. Most have never read the Bible, and many would not even attend church other than at Christmas and Easter, if that. How can you possibly expect a right view of God in that crowd?

This bait-and-switch makes Jennings’ argument that “there is definitely something wrong in Christianity” appear way stronger than it is. I don’t deny something is wrong with Christianity in our day, but Jennings’ claims about how average Christians live and behave are gross distortions of reality. Other researchers have done similar studies and maintain there are significant differences in outcomes between genuine Christians and unbelievers. Other critics have also pointed out that the Barna definition of “Christian” neither works biblically nor leads to the conclusions Jennings draws from it.

Constantine and Crusaders

Doubling down on this misidentification, in chapter 2 Jennings considers the Romanized church of Constantine’s day to be synonymous with “Christianity”. It simply wasn’t. Nor was the politicized “church” of the Crusade years synonymous with “Christianity”. They were Christendom, not Christianity, and the difference is stark.

The Lord himself told us the kingdom of heaven would be full of both wheat and weeds. Jennings completely ignores the weed issue. It is impossible to expect mature, regenerate conduct and a correct view of God from the unsaved or untaught, let alone from wolves among the sheep. Our churches will always have plenty of all of these, and mainline denominations have even more.

Now, if Jennings’ thesis were that most so-called Christians don’t understand the love of God because most of them are not even saved, then I quite agree with him. But that’s not what he’s saying.

Crisis? What Crisis

To be clear, I don’t say there IS no crisis, or that Jennings is addressing a minor misunderstanding about the character of God and the way his laws work. But ignoring the differences between genuine believers and non-Christians in terms of real-life outcomes does not help Jennings’ credibility or make me more convinced of the urgency of his subject, especially because we get most of these dodgy assertions right up front in the first chapter.

Right-sizing the problem would be a good start; I am always suspicious of writers who have just discovered something horrendous nobody else knows about the church. There is probably a good reason for that.

2/ A Binary View of God’s Law

Embrace the Power of ‘And’

For Jennings, it is always an either/or issue: we are either operating legalistically (at or below Lawrence Kohlberg’s level 4) or operating lovingly (levels 5 through 7). But scripture gives us both imposed law and design law as part of God’s plan for the world, not just one or the other. When dealing with small children, animals, the unsaved and hardened Neo-Calvinists, having the tool of imposed law at one’s disposal is quite necessary. People at level 4 and below in their moral understanding do not speak any other language, and often view acts of love as weaknesses rather than strengths.

We need to better understand the spheres in which each type of law is intended to operate, and the appropriate Christian role in all this.

Jennings prefers to view God as physician rather than a judge, and that certainly makes for a less offensive presentation of God to the world. The problem is that the judge-and-legal imagery doesn’t come from centuries of misunderstanding scripture. It is right there in the Word, and is used in both Old and New Testaments as often (or possibly more often) than medical imagery. For example, the concept of propitiation was not grossly misunderstood by the Romanized church of the fourth century; it came right from the pen of the apostle Paul. And just as Jennings points out that healing is not a metaphor, but is “real”, so also the legal imagery is not just metaphor. Imposed judgment is as real and necessary as is healing.

When Israel entered Canaan and began destroying the Canaanites, that was imposed law from beginning to end — and God was very much behind it. Had design law been in operation, the Amorites would have died of AIDS, petered out of existence from offering so many children to Moloch, or exterminated themselves with in-fighting. The same principle applies in the cases of the Flood, Babel and other Old Testament judgments: the righteous retribution for men’s sins was imposed on them personally and deliberately by God. They did not simply succumb to the natural long- and short-term consequences of their own behavior.

Design law and imposed law work together. In fact, design law IS imposed law; it was just imposed a very long time ago, in perpetuity, and by proxy. A fallen world cannot function without imposed law, possibly because 80% of its citizens are operating at a level 4 or lower stage of moral development. They only appreciate and respond to rules and regulations consistently carried out.

Where Design Law Doesn’t Suffice

I remember a few years ago listening to a man rehearse a story from a book he had read about post-apartheid South Africa, in which a black mother forgave and hugged the white police officer who had beaten her son to death. It was a heart-warming account, and perhaps for that mother, rejecting imposed law and operating in response to design law at a higher moral level, love and forgiveness triumphed. Unfortunately, what the speaker was not aware of is that now that the reins of government have been handed over to the tribes, South African blacks are murdering white farmers left, right and center. For most South Africans, imposed law is needed or the state quickly descends into a murderous mess. A society made up primarily of the unregenerate cannot exist in a design law-only condition. Dead people cannot be taught a more accurate understanding of God’s character. Imposed law puts some kind of brake on that.

In fact, Christ’s two advents may be looked at as epitomizing design law and imposed law. The first advent is all design law. The Lord did not come then as judge; he came to expose the inevitable consequences of sin and encourage repentance from it. But he is coming to judge, and he will absolutely impose his judgment on the world. It is true that sinners choose hell (design) because they refuse to love the Lord Jesus, but they also have to be thrown in (imposed). They will not jump into the lake of fire on their own initiative!

Jennings writes, “Love never imposes or coerces; love wins the heart and love leaves free.” This is not always the case. What is “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” if not coercion? Sure, it’s loving coercion, used on an insensate people as a last resort, and preferring repentance to destruction. But if love won the heart of the king of Nineveh, it was with the threat of annihilation. Nineveh was indeed left free to reject Jonah’s message, but let’s not pretend the people’s intellects were engaged with Jonah’s persuasive argumentation on God’s behalf. His (recorded) sermon was eight words long!

Now, I agree that coercive power doesn’t change the heart long-term; Nineveh went back to its old ways and was destroyed 100 years later. So I’m not suggesting the same strategy would work in marriage, but sometimes parents have to do something similar with their children ... in love. Coerce a bit. So do elders at times. It’s not the ideal, but with some (level 4) audiences it is the only language they understand.

3/ A Disastrous View of Homosexuality

Straw Men and Semantic Games

The semantic games Jennings plays in his chapter on homosexuality are unworthy of a Christian writer. There is no unambiguous scientific evidence that people with biological aberrations make up the “vast majority of homosexuals today”. My own experience working alongside homosexuals is that it’s primarily nurture rather than nature that is responsible for their bent desires. In every case I know of, they were abused or introduced to man/boy relations before the age of consent.

But okay, let’s stipulate that most homosexuals don’t choose the object(s) of their desire for whatever reason. The question of whether it is appropriate to act on that desire is what’s at issue, and scripture is clear that it is not, any more than I get to have my neighbor’s wife if I genuinely desire her.

So, after producing the Westboro Baptist crew to use as a convenient straw man, Jennings then proceeds to bludgeon Christians for treating homosexuals like lepers. First, I don’t think most Christians do. If anything, they don’t know how to handle the case of a practising homosexual who claims to be Christian, so they do a lot of awkward things that are intended for the best. I won’t claim I have a much better idea than they do how to handle such cases. What I won’t do is excuse the conduct, which is what Jennings does.

A Basic Principle of Economics

There is a basic principle of economics that you get more of what you incentivize. It is a scriptural principle too, albeit in reverse: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” Currently we are seeing a huge rise in teens identifying as gay and trans, doubling and trebling the historical 3% threshold, precisely because society applauds it. It is a way of getting attention at the time of life when children most feel the need for it. That in itself should tell us the causes of certain kinds of sexual dysfunction are not primarily genetic. Moreover, I have seen numerous cases where a damaged person identified as being of one persuasion, and later changed his/her mind about it. That’s not biological.

Now of course Christians should not be gay-bashers or hard-hearted funeral crashers! Good grief; that should go without saying. But that is not because a homosexual bears no responsibility for participating in a degrading and sinful act; it is because it is not my job to punish him when he does. But the fact that we are not in charge of doling out punishment for sin does not mean believers are compelled to excuse, enthuse about or ignore overt, ongoing conduct by professing Christians that violates scripture. 1 Corinthians 5 is the antidote to that notion.

The Woman Taken in Adultery

Further, the woman who was caught in adultery was excused from her penalty not because she didn’t deserve it — she totally did. But she remained unjudged because there was nobody in the first century Jewish religious leadership morally qualified to stand in judgment on her, and judgment was not the Lord’s concern during his first advent. One day he will come in judgment, and we may find out if his instructions “From now on sin no more” were obeyed or ignored.

Now, if the woman taken in adultery had lived in Corinth and claimed to be Christian, even a compromised, erring church would have been qualified to pass judgment on her conduct, as they did in the case of the man who was alleged to have his father’s wife. We should probably learn from that.

4/ The “I’ve Discovered Something Everyone Else Gets Wrong” Problem

I’ve saved the worst for last. There are hints of this view earlier in the book, but in his second appendix, Jennings makes it explicit:

“Many people struggle when they read the Bible because they find numerous expressions that seem to support the imposed law idea. This is due to the fact that by the time the Bible was translated into our modern language, the imposed law construct was deeply ingrained orthodoxy that was accepted as fact by most translators. This means that Bible translators, though honest and with good intent, have artificially introduced into the translations much of the legal language with its fear-inducing ideas about God.”

I have seen this sort of thing before, and I think it’s really dangerous. It’s all well and good to write a book that unearths long-neglected ideas and shows how they are really there in the Bible to be seen and understood. But when you presume to undermine a translation process that has been going on for over 2,400 years, you are really stepping into seriously arrogant territory, and telling your readers they cannot hope to understand what they read without your particular brand of special insight. Oh, and “buy my new book”, which happens to be a rewritten Bible from which I have expunged all the references to God as judge that I don’t like!

Folks, this is why translation is done by committee: to weed out people riding hobby-horses. Are you going to tell me the Lord waited over two millennia to bring along the scholar who would finally show his people who he really is, and that all those poor suckers who lived between the fourth century and today have remained in the darkness of ignorance about God’s love all this time? That’s what this really adds up to: “You couldn’t really understand your Bibles until I came along.”

I found this paragraph horrifying, frankly. Design law may be morally higher than imposed law, but both are necessary components of God’s plan for humanity. We are dealing with a loving Father who gives every possible chance for us to change, heal, repent, grow and live in love. But we are also dealing with a God who struck down Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah, Ananias and Sapphira and many others. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

And no, thousands of translators did NOT make that bit up. Perhaps The Remedy replaces “fearful” with “mildly concerning”. I have not had the heart to look.

In Summary

Well, what about the church? We are living under grace, not law. If there was ever a period that should be characterized by design law rather than imposed law, we are living in it. Jennings is not wrong about that: love should be the order of the day, if only among believers. But love can only operate amidst those who understand it and voluntarily subject themselves to it. In order for society not to be reduced into chaos, we must accept the distinct possibility that all unbelievers and many Christians may never get beyond level 4 thinking in this life.

Consider: would it be better and higher if the daughter of Christian parents accepted their restrictions on her because of love rather than fear? Absolutely. But if all she can do is obey the rules because they ARE rules, it is still better that she not have that abortion she was thinking about. Why? Because she does not live in a vacuum where coming to understand God and his ways are the only factors in play, or the only thing that ultimately matters in her world. So then, her obedience to imposed law is worse for her than complete restoration and total understanding, but it is better for her conscience in the short term, better for the baby, better for the baby’s father, better for the families, better for society, and better that she did not sin against God. Perhaps for her own sake it would be preferable that she reach bottom. Maybe then she would fully understand the consequences of her sin and cry out for change. But she would also do horrific damage on her way down. Eli’s condemnation was that he did not impose the law on his sons (“he did not restrain them”). They needed law imposed on them, and so did his nation.

Imposed law is not intrinsically bad. For many people it is absolutely necessary, and it is part of God’s design. Our world as we know it will end not just because design law dictates that what cannot be sustained will not be, but because God will apply imposed law to the world before it gets to that point.

So, both types of law work together. Yes, people come to their fate because they will not obey God’s design, but their fate is ultimately imposed. That’s not a bad thing but a necessary one.

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