THREE SURPRISING ACTIVITIES THAT MAKE ME FEEL CLOSER TO GOD

Creation of Adam

Intimacy with Christ is perhaps the single most worthwhile thing that a person can seek. And, as we are commanded to love God with all of our heart, soul and strength, there are different ways of drawing close as there are different degrees of proximity.

I generally subscribe to a ‘tripartite’ view of the composition of man – spirit, soul, and body. This would be analogous to the “heart, soul, and strength” referenced above. In Greek we find the words soma, psyche, and pneuma. The soma is the physical body, shared by all living things in our universe. The psyche is the soul or psychological self, comprised of cognitions, emotions, and memories. The pneuma is the spirit, the heart, or the inner-man – it is the spiritual core and the seat of the will.

In this post I will describe three surprising activities at the level of the soma that, for me, foster a subjective feeling of closeness and deeper appreciation of God.

1. RUNNING

I am not much of a runner. I can’t remember the last time the Nike running app on my smartphone was activated. Running had always seemed masochistic to me, and it wasn’t until my wife suggested a couch-to-5k plan as a potential shoulder-to-shoulder bonding activity that I reluctantly began to enjoy the activity.

Besides the eventual endorphin release, putting on my brightly colored running shoes and hitting the pavement brings to mind the many, many analogies found in scripture that compare the Christian life to running a race.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12:1)

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” (2 Timothy 4:7, ESV)

I also can’t help but think of Olympic athlete Eric Liddell as depicted in the film ‘Chariots of Fire.’ “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.”

2. DRINKING WINE

I am also not much of a wine drinker. I have dabbled in and enjoyed the fine Pinot Noir that comes out of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. I have been to a few wine tastings. I have even read the book, ‘The Billionaire’s Vinegar.’ Still, nobody would confuse me for an oenophile. If I have any beverage of choice it is coffee, hands down. Also, lived in “Beer City, USA” for many years and was exposed to local, craft beers that would make Belgian monks proud. What’s more is that my current job precludes my consumption of any alcoholic beverages.

But still, drinking wine makes me feel closer to God.

Jesus was a fan of wine. Our Lord and Savior’s first recorded miracle involves transmuting water into wine (John 2). His opponents actually accused him of being a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). This was real wine, not “grape juice” as some have attempted to twist the biblical language to fit human traditions.

Growing up in a very “low church” setting, I did indeed drink store-bought grape juice in a tiny paper cup and eat a cracker for Communion (I can’t bring myself to refer to an ounce of grape juice and a cracker as the Lord’s Supper). I have even heard a former youth pastor joke about offering purple Gatorade and potato chips. Although I am not a proponent of “means of grace” sacramentalism, I have a strong sense that Evangelicalism’s Communion resembles very little the Last Supper that Jesus spent with his disciples in the upper room. In contrast, I have a sense of reverence whenever I visit a Lutheran service and dip my bread into a goblet of wine, feeling the slight alcoholic sting of the “blood of Christ” on my tongue.

What interests me most are the words of Matthew 26:29: “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my father’s kingdom.” There is an actual promise from Jesus to his disciples that he will drink wine with them during his coming kingdom. Drinking a glass of wine makes me remember this promise and look forward to spending time with my God.

3. BIRD WATCHING

What? Did you say bird watching?!? Fifteen years ago I would have ranked bird watching one step above stamp collecting as the most boring and unmanly hobbies of all time. So what changed? First, I saw the Academy Award-nominated documentary ‘Winged Migration.’ Second, I visited the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. Third, I began to notice interesting birds such as wild turkeys, owls, and even a massive turkey vulture near the places I lived in North Carolina. Those events helped me appreciate the diversity of ‘little feathery animals that fly around’ significantly more.

More recently, the Campus Pastor at my work has repeatedly commented on the deep impact his mother’s advice had on him as he grew up: “Look at the birds…” She would reference Jesus in Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your father” and Luke 12:24, “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!”

To combat worry and fear, this boy’s mother would recall the Word and enjoin him to spend time in nature contemplating God’s design and goodness. These memories were so meaningful to this Pastor that if he were to plant a new church he would affix the name Sparrow Ridge to it, out of every possible name one could choose. I too am learning the art of quieting myself and appreciating God’s creation, allowing his General Revelation to speak to me and remind me of my father’s ways.

REFLECTIONS ON GRACE

Growing up in a church environment as well as with a personal mindset that stressed personal holiness bordering on the elusive concept of “Christian perfection,” I did not have a firm grasp of the concept of ‘grace.’ Reading the Gospels, I understood mercy and the love of God, for sure, but grace seemed ill-defined and often misused throughout the universal Church. Reading Tozer, I could zealously agree with this statement: “We have come to our present low state as the result of an almost fanatical emphasis on grace to the total exclusion of obedience, self-discipline, patience, personal holiness, cross carrying, discipleship and other such precious doctrines of the New Testament.” (Tozer 2011, 116).

In many ways I still agree with that statement. The high calling of personal holiness is ingrained deep within my marrow, and I believe that there is a widespread misunderstanding of grace in our churches to this day. But for me, it was not until I read ‘The Hammer of God’ by Bo Giertz that I truly came to understand ‘grace’ on a personal level. The other day I came across this prayer from John Chrysostom that beautifully illustrates what I see as grace in its purest form:

“Know, O Lord my God, I am unworthy that You should enter beneath the roof of the temple of my soul, because it is all empty and dead. There is in me no worthy place where You may lay Your head. But since from Your loftiness You humbled yourself for our sake, please humble Yourself now toward my humility. And as it seemed good to You to lie in the cavern and in the manger with dumb beasts, so also now graciously lie in the manger of my dumb soul, and enter into my defiled body. Just as You did not refuse to enter into the house of Simon the leper, and there to sit at a meal with sinners, so also graciously enter into the house of my humble soul, which is leprous and sinful. Just as You did not feel loathing at the polluted lips of a sinful woman who kissed Your feet, so also do not loathe my even more defiled and polluted lips and unclean tongue. Amen.” – John Chrysostom

CREATION, MIRACLES, AND SUPERSTRING THEORY

strings
I was reading to my toddler today from the ‘Big Picture Story Bible‘ by David R. Helm (2010) and came across the following passage: “Do you know how God created everything? Simply by speaking words. Imagine, making the world with words! Strong words. Powerful words.” That’s when my inner theologian started to question. Is anything really so “simple” with God?

Psalm 33:6 says, “By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” Clear enough. But speaking in our universe involves vocal chords and sound waves moving through a medium. Likewise, breath in our universe involves lungs, cellular respiration, and various gasses such as carbon dioxide. Does God the Father have vocal chords? Or lungs? What medium did his words move through before anything other than God existed? Does the breath of God contain carbon dioxide?

Don’t think that I am mocking. A principle I come back to again and again is the ‘dimensional beyondness‘ of God – that Yahweh the Creator is ‘qualitatively different’ than anything found in the created cosmos. God is “spirit” (John 4:24). God pre-existed all things and is not dependent on anything within creation itself.  So, a scripture that informs us that God said, “Let there be light” and there was light is indeed simple, but the reality behind what actually took place might be completely out of our ability as created, mortal creatures to comprehend. I do not pretend to know how God could actualize a world through speech, but the following concept intrigues me.

The bleeding-edge of theoretical physics suggests possible unification in the form of Superstring theory (M-theory being the most advanced version). The absolute smallest building block of our created universe is proposed to be a ‘string,’ an incredibly tiny filament of energy (1033 centimeters). As a guitar string will produce a different note based on how it vibrates, these quantum strings will produce different particle species based on how they “vibrate” (a very simplistic explanation).

Imagine a blank canvas of motionless strings, stretching out in every direction, filling the void. Now imagine God speaking… and having every filament of energy come alive – dancing and oscillating in harmony with the majestic symphony of an instantly manifesting cosmos. This concept can apply to a lot of miracles that involve supernatural changes within our physical world.

Remember in Matthew 8 when Jesus reached out and touched a man with leprosy, and he was immediately cleansed of the disease? Those who are skeptical or discount the many accounts of miracles throughout Scripture may likewise scoff at this – “surely this is just a legendary embellishment attached to the ‘good moral teacher’ Jesus that we accept!” But how hard is it to conceive, even for so-called modern, so-called post-Enlightenment minded people, that the God of the Universe could cause the basic building blocks underlying those cells to change vibrational frequency? Leprous tissue could have been reconfigured as healthy tissue in a microsecond.

Likewise, seeming “thin air” could be reconfigured into the matter comprising bread loaves and fishes, and a torrent of water can gush from a rock. Most recorded miracles do originate from the supernatural but operate in the natural, created universe that we inhabit. There are physical changes that can be observed and documented. A cancerous tumor that is miraculously healed has to go somewhere, or cease to exist, or turn into something else. Some force, such as gravity, must be manipulated in order for dry ground to appear in the middle of a Sea so that Moses can walk through.

In other physics-meets-theology news, if God decides to change the value of the theoretical Higgs Ocean that permeates our entire universe, all matter will boil away. Sounds like 2 Peter 3:12 to me! How else could outer space burn?

H IS FOR HERESY?

Heresy

“It seems to be a general feature of the history of Christian thought that a period of genuine creativity is immediately followed by a petrification and scholasticism, as the insights of a pioneering thinker or group of thinkers are embodied in formulae or confessions…” (McGrath 1986, 151).

“A major principle of the Reformation was reformata et semper reformanda – reformed and always reforming. How is continuing reform of evangelical faith and life possible if being evangelical requires firm adherence to a humanly devised cognitive structure of doctrinal content?” (Olson 2002, 39).

I have a deep respect and admiration for theoretical physics. I find that field fascinating. To me, systematic theology and theoretical physics represent the highest intellectual achievements of mankind – the first in regards to Special Revelation and the second in regards to General Revelation.

Christian theologians could learn a lot from theoretical physicists.

In physics, my perception is that scientists stand on the shoulders of giants and collaborate over decades through rigorous, meticulous research. Hypotheses become theories and theories become laws. New discoveries upend or expand previous understanding of the cosmos. Concepts such as falsifiability, replicating experiments, and using theoretical models to make accurate predictions are of one fabric with the scientific method.

However, when it comes to theology, we tend to find lone theologians creating their own systematic theologies, or we find many others accepting the party line of a particular ancient creed or confession. Some act as if the last word on theology was decided in the 1500s by a handful of white, European males. Certainly subsequent centuries of archeology, manuscript evidence, and language studies can shed no additional light on our beliefs (sarcasm).

It is in this spirit that I embark on reading three different books that espouse what I would have in earlier years considered heretical and false outright, based on their differing views from what I was taught at home and in church. Each of these books has had an impact or received high praise, even from those who do not agree. I endeavor to challenge myself and be exposed to contrary ideas with an open mind and without fear.

The books are:

1. ‘Most Moved Mover’ by Clark Pinnock

This book advocates open theism, which is contrary to what I am discovering to be my Classical Arminian leanings. I was raised, without knowing it, with an Arminian perspective (although not Classical Arminian). However, recalling conversations with my father, who was also the pastor of my church, I see that he actually embraced some openness without explicitly identifying it that way.

2. ‘Kingdom Come’ by Sam Storms

This book advocates amillennialism, which is contrary to my Mid-Trib / Pre-Wrath eschatological leanings. I had accepted the doctrine of the Rapture as a given for many years until I started studying the Bible for myself and found no support for it. I currently do not believe in any kind of “rapture” nor the doctrine of imminency.

3. ‘The Fire That Consumes’ by Edward Fudge

This book advocates annihilationism, which is contrary to my traditional views on eternal suffering in the final judgment. Technically, the author labels his view as ‘conditionalist.’ My interest in this topic was piqued when I realized that the Bible describes the lake of fire as eternal, and that Satan and his angels will suffer for eternity there, and that the unregenerate will also go there… but it did not clearly state that the unregenerate will also suffer for eternity there! Hmmm…

semper reformanda!

DOES THE ESV HAVE A CALVINIST BIAS? (PART I)

ESV Pew HC

The English Standard Version, first published in 2001 by Crossway Bibles (and revised in 2007 and 2011) has surged in popularity despite its relatively young age. It consistently ranks 5th in both unit and dollar sales of all Bible translations and is steadily chiseling away at the market share of its competition. I believe that the ESV’s popularity is due to a combination of great marketing, celebrity pastor endorsements, offering many great editions for purchase, and the public’s acceptance and enjoyment of the translation itself. But… is there a hidden “Reformed Theology” bias underlying the text? Is there any evidence beyond the anecdotal? If there is indeed a slant, is the bias conscious or unconscious? Obviously, this can be considered “inside baseball.”

Let me start off by saying that I do not desire to promote factions or divisions within Christianity, to create a stumbling block for others, to start a translation “flame war,” or to in any way lord myself over my brothers and sisters in Christ. I legitimately hesitated to write this post for all of those reasons. Let me also say that I own several copies of the ESV Bible – perhaps as many as six. I own more copies of the ESV than I do my much preferred translation, the New American Standard Bible. I would also at this time continue to recommend the ESV to others as a solid and reliable translation that is available in a startling variety of options and editions.

So why write this post at all? Three reasons:

1. One of my all time favorite books of the Bible is 1 Peter. It brings to me tears when I read it. And, as I have made my preference clearly known, I prefer to read from the NASB. One day, reading 1 Peter 1:1 from the ESV, I encountered the word “elect” where I had previously always read “chosen.” Now elect is a theologically-charged word. The concept of election is absolutely central to Calvinism and Reformed Theology. And I would argue that the Greek eklektos no more means “elect” than diakonos means “deacon.” Both of those words require further translation to make sense in English. Eklektos is best translated as “chosen” and diakonos is best translated as “servant,” in my opinion. I then began to do some digging and found many others with similar suspicions. So, my first reason for writing this post is to actually investigate and see if there really is or is not a theological slant underlying the translation philosophy of the ESV.

2. I am heavily procrastinating writing my “omnipresence” post. That concept is quite complex and I do not want to rush my conclusions. Also, having two boys under the age of two in the house does not leave me much free time for reading these days…

3. Bible translations matter! Those curious believers who are “King James only” and also hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy are faced with the awkward task of explaining that unicorns really did exist, but that they are now extinct. Yes, the King James Version uses the word ‘unicorn’ six times; every other translation uses ‘wild ox.’ Inaccuracies in the KJV also led to the development of the Gap Theory of Creation. Other examples: Much controversy has surrounded the translation of Isaiah 7:14 – is it a “young woman” or a “virgin?” Also, debates over gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language in modern translations continue – is God our heavenly parent or specifically our heavenly father?

The translation(s) we are exposed to as children, or grow up reading, or start reading once we become Christians… that language has a lasting influence on our theology. I hope that every Christian would strive for the most accurate and trustworthy translations of Holy Scripture possible.

Part II of this series will examine the circumstantial evidence. Part III will example the textual evidence through specific examples. Does the ESV truly have a Calvinist bias? Let’s find out!

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY: A MOLINIST APPROACH

Salvation and Sovereignty

I just finished reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach’ by Kenneth Keathley in my ongoing quest to find out exactly what I believe about God’s “sovereignty.” Molinism, often advertised as a middle-ground position between Calvinism and Arminianism, piqued my interest. Keathley is a Baptist who teaches at a Baptist seminary, who adopts the ROSES acronym (against TULIP)… originally presented by Baptist scholar Timothy George. As Baptist theology has always been a curious mixture of Calvinist and Arminian ideas, it seems fitting for Keathley to embrace this “middle position” of Molinism.

Unfortunately, the book is far more about the ROSES acronym and how it plays into the doctrines of salvation and sovereignty (as the title advertises) than it is about Molinism itself. I was left mystified by the more elusive, philosophical details of Molinism and will have to read ‘A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology’ by Kirk R. MacGregor next.

Keathley often states that God “uses his middle-knowledge” in such-and-such circumstances. But how? In what exact way? Also, God “actualizes” a particular world out of all possible worlds. But what does it mean for God to “actualize” a world – does he only actualize a world during the seven days of creation recorded in Genesis and then sit back and watch everything unfold in a deterministic cascade? Or is God in a process of constant actualization? Does the world he actualizes change based on Keathley’s concept of contingency? What specific criteria did / does God use to choose a particular world to actualize? Keathley says little about these matters.

Regardless, Keathley writes well and his attention to certain topics have left lasting impressions on me. He argues very clearly and logically in favor of:

1. Contingency: Scripture repeatedly presents scenarios that turned out one way but could have truly turned out a very different way. The outcome was not set it stone. “Contingency is the concept that things could have been otherwise” (25). “A contingent truth is something that happens to be true but obviously could have been false” (28).

2. Permission: The Bible “presents God’s relationship with iniquity as one of permission. The notion of God’s permissive relationship to evil permeates the Bible” (27). This is opposed to God being in any way the author or cause of sin, even indirectly.

3. Soft Libertarianism: Humans have a limited ability to choose to the contrary – their set or range of possible choices are determined by their character. An unregenerate person has the possibility of making genuine choices between alternatives, even to engage in externally moral behavior, but they do not have the ability to please God because this is not within the scope of their character. Humans do not have the freedom to make any possible choice out of an infinite set of choices, nor are their choices illusions determined by external factors.

4. Agent Causation: Closely related to soft libertarianism, the concept of agent causation states that “a person is the source and origin of his choices” and that ultimate responsibility for decisions lies with that agent (73). “Rather than functioning simply as a link in a chain of events, a causal agent operates as the impetus for new causal chains. This creative ability reflects the imago dei” (75). Our capacity to originate choices is like “a little citadel of creativity ex nihilo.

5. Resistible Grace: Keathley powerfully argues, from both Scripture and logic, that grace (though “monergistic”) is in fact resistible. “God’s drawing grace should and would be efficacious for all. The only thing that could stop it is if, inexplicably, a person decides to refuse” (106). Keathley uses many verses that point to the free and universal offer of salvation as well as the culpability of those that refuse. “[T]hose who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonian 2:10b, ESV).

Has this book convinced me to become a Molinist? No. I still don’t fully understand the nuances of the position. But I got a lot out of reading it and I applaud Keathley’s thoughtful work. If this book can help nudge doubting hyper-Calvinists toward becoming 5-point Calvinists, and 5-point Calvinists toward becoming 4-point Calvinists, and 4-point Calvinists toward becoming Molinists… then I consider that a win!

THE PERFECT BIBLE DESIGN

book-hi

I own approximately 18 Bibles, and that number is steadily rising. Bibles are certainly better things to collect than, say… souvenir shot glasses. But why bother? Every time I get excited about a new Bible purchase I start over at Genesis 1:1. And then I get anxiety about having to choose between which Bible to “remove” from my collection and tote around. If the most important Bible is the one you read, what practical benefit is there to hoarding so many physical copies of God’s word?

Maybe I just haven’t found “the one.”

Sure, I’ve got my go-to travel Bible. I have my ultra-deluxe Bible that my son will someday inherit. I have my wide-margin Bible for jotting theological notes. I have several niche Bibles that fulfill very specific purposes. But what I really want is ‘one Bible to rule them all.’

As far as I can tell, my dream Bible does not exist. Not yet. But if any Bible publishers are out there reading this, here is my shopping list:

TRANSLATION: New American Standard Bible – 1995 Text Update.

BINDING: Black Highland Goatskin. Smyth Sewn. Semi Yapp. Three ribbon markers. Art gilt.

PAPER: 38 GSM Tervakoski Thinopaque Bible Paper with 84% opacity.

PAGE DIMENSIONS: 9 1/8 x 6 1/4 inches (235 x 160mm).

TEXT: Single-column. Paragraph format. Black text. Line-matching. Ideally, I would like a format identical to the new ESV Reader’s Bible except for the inclusion of verse numbers. No text notes, cross-references, section headings, etc.

Until a visionary publisher creates my perfect Bible, I will have to keep playing Goldilocks. This one’s paper is too thin… this one crowds the gutter… this one has a lousy text block printed in China… this one has red letters…