Friday, April 13, 2007

Vicarious Hill-Climbing

by JM

Psalm 24

In the first two verses of David’s psalm, he’s unequivocal about to whom the world belongs. It doesn’t belong to men, kings, or even devils.

Psalm 24:1-2, “The earth is the LORD'S, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it. 2 For He has founded it upon the seas And established it upon the rivers.
Such is God’s rule of exhaustive power and scope that always all things are in God’s immediate possession to turn which way he wants. Even the “god of this world” is an unwilling accomplice in Yahweh’s plan.

Although the world is clearly described as the Lord’s, David also implies a significant separation between the Creator and “those who dwell” on earth. He would seem to declare that no earth-dweller is fit to be a heaven-dweller; no person may ascend into God’s favor. This is suggested by the third verse.

Psalm 24:3 3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? And who may stand in His holy place?
The flavor of the question is rhetorical, as if to say,

“Among the inhabitants of the earth, who has the strength to scale a mountain on top of which resides the celestial city?”

“what is this vanity of man that he thinks he has virtue enough to ascend to God.”
Perhaps this is the kind of vanity picked up later by the prophet Isaiah when he describes the quintessential bombast who said,

“‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, And I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north. 14 'I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High'” (Isaiah 14:13-14)
This first bombast is also the first Babel builder, setting the unholy precedent of the attempted circumvention of the glory of God, as well setting in motion the first of innumerable failed and frustrated building projects attempted by his sons and daughters (John 8:44). It is upon these children that God visits the iniquity of the father, even on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate the Lord.

To dispel all doubt of the futility of heaven-entry, David cements the answer implied by these questions with the impossible criteria needed for such ascension. Who may ascend into heaven?

Psalm 24:4-5 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood And has not sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive a blessing from the LORD And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Who among earth-dwellers has the strength of untarnished hands to grab the clefts of God’s mountain, or the holy blood pumped by a pure heart to power such ascent, or who hasn’t been bowed and broken down in soul by deceit and falsehood?

Sometime before David’s answer, Job’s friend would answer correctly and emphatically, “No One!”

Job 15:14-16 14 "What is man, that he should be pure, Or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? 15 "Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones, And the heavens are not pure in His sight; 16 How much less one who is detestable and corrupt, Man, who drinks iniquity like water!”
It’s at this point that the psalm presents both a baffling and exhilarating statement.

Psalm 24:5-6 5 He shall receive a blessing from the LORD And righteousness from the God of his salvation. 6 This is the generation of those who seek Him, Who seek Your face-- even Jacob. Selah.
Here’s the baffling part: Jacob is undoubtedly a man without the clean hands and the pure heart that is requisite for this heavenly rock climbing expedition. As to deceit and lying, the meaning of his name embodies the man and his life. Jacob means “deceiver.” Jacob means “one who has lifted his soul to falsehood.” Jacob means “one who swears deceitfully.” Yet, Jacob is presented here as both the man prohibited from heaven and the man permitted into heaven. So which is it? Either heaven doesn’t require these virtues to enter, or Jacob (and all those like him) will not enter.

This is also exhilarating. Psalm 24 tells us that there are those like Jacob, and those who are of Jacob’s generation, who although they are just as incapable of this heavenly ascent as the rest of mankind, nevertheless make it. This is potentially good news for the rest of impure humanity.

This then of course moves us to raise the question: how is it that those with sinful hands, impure hearts, deceitful and vile souls, are able to ascend the hill of the Lord when God says such a feat is audacious and humanly impossible? David cryptically answers:

Psalm 24:7-10 Lift up your heads, O gates, And be lifted up, O ancient doors, That the King of glory may come in! 8 Who is the King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle. 9 Lift up your heads, O gates, And lift them up, O ancient doors, That the King of glory may come in! 10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory. Selah.
Some commentators believe that these are the gates of Jerusalem. I want to suggest that David is referring to the gates of the New Jerusalem, heaven itself. It’s hard to believe that Jerusalem, which is established by David, would be considered by him as having “ancient” gates; it’s even more difficult to adopt this view if David meant what the KJV translators thought he meant when they render the term, “everlasting.” The gates, so it would seem, would have an antiquity much like the “ancient of days.” If I’m right, then we have someone not only opening doors of heaven that were bolted shut, but also someone extending the height of the lintel of these heavenly doors to allow for a grand entry. This is none other but the King of Glory.

At this point, we still don’t have the answer as to why it is that Jacob and his generation are ‘exempt’ from the qualifications in the action whereby the King of Glory passes through and expands of heaven’s gate. So what’s so significant about this passage?

Notice that this is a passage into heaven, not a departure from. This verse implies that the Lord had previously stepped outside of the gates of heaven and descended down the hill of the Lord; all of which without the expansion of her doors. Whatever feat the Lord accomplished outside of her gates (at the base of this hill), whatever battle in which the Lord was strong and mighty, as he makes way back into the heavenly city and His arrival has the corresponding effect of broadening it’s doors.

Now what feat of the LORD could the Psalmist possibly be referring to? I think the New Testament writers would say the feat of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Messiah.

Ephesians 4:8-13 8 Therefore it says, "WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN." 9 (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.) 11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

Hebrews 9:24 24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us;

John 6:38-40 38 "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. 39 "This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. 40 "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."
To further support this interpretation, as Paul describes the centrality of the cross of Christ as the sole means of the salvation of God’s people in 1 Corinthians 2, he links Christ with the “LORD of glory” referred to by David in Psalm 24.

1 Corinthians 2:7-8 7 but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; 8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;
In these passages, we have the Son of God, the LORD of Glory exiting heaven, descending in the incarnation, with a mission to rescue a particular people from eternal death unto eternal life by his own death. Some time shortly after his resurrection, Jesus ascends the hill of the Lord with clean hands and pure heart, with a soul not lifted into falsehood or deceit, in order to present a sinful people as righteous before God. On his back, he carries booty from his conquest; the sons of Jacob: all those who like Jacob who had be visited with unmerited grace. With his arrival, the doors must be enlarged to allow for the influx of souls into a heaven which previously banned them.

This psalm gives a fresh perspective of the “Footprints” story. David’s rendition is one of vicarious hill-climbing in which the Messiah carries a company of disabled people with the strength of his holiness and virtue.

Sola Dei Gloria!!!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Protestants, Rome, and the Rule of Faith

by JM

I've included a link to a site which posted my article entitled Surprised by What? A Defense of Sola Scriptura. The posting was met with a few hundred responses. Take a look. Click Here

Faith as Movement:Soren Kierkegaard’s Reflection on the Father of Faith

by JM

What is the relationship of faith and belief? Initially, one might consider these two terms synonymous. Further consideration reveals, however, that there is an important distinction between the two. By “belief,” I mean cognitive assent to a proposition. For example, I assent to the claim made medical experts that too much exposure to sunlight leads to a significant increase of risk of skin cancer. I agree with their pronouncements on this matter. By “faith,” I mean an activity in which I come to apply or rely on anyone of my particular beliefs. So, let’s say that even though I assent to the pronouncements of the vast majority of medical experts about the need for sun block, nevertheless I sunbathe unprotected in death valley, though sun block is in my travel bag. In this example, I don’t trust, apply, or rely upon that which I claim to believe.

How would this distinction play out in a religious context? In terms of belief, there are certainly particular doctrines found within various traditions that are to be assented to by the followers of each tradition respectively. The history of Christianity has been one in which creeds have been paramount for the introduction and growth of its adherents. Interestingly enough, the word “creed” comes from the Latin “credo,” which means “I believe.” As a young congregant in the Catholic church, it was (and still is) a part of each service to recite the Apostles’ creed, which delineates the distinctives of the Christian religion. This recital is the exhibition (for the devout) of a propositional attitude of assent to the truthfulness of each main tenet of Christianity. So, for example, the creed says, “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.” To say I “believe” this proposition is tantamount to saying that I’m not an atheist. In addition to belief, what are we to make of faith in a religious context? Well, let’s say that I assent to the part of the creed that says that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead in accordance to some criteria. Having faith in this statement, I actively seek to make sure that I have met the criteria necessary for a favorable judgment. That is, to have faith, is to apply and rely upon what one has assented to cognitively.

At this point, one may see a vast chasm between belief and faith. Its one thing to assent to some proposition as being true, but it’s quite another to apply or rely on that truth. In some cases, relying upon what we believe is quite easy. For instance, it’s relatively easy to apply sun block to my skin. It’s not a matter met with an attritious struggle in my soul between competing desires. In other cases, however, faith is a war of attrition. The impetus behind Soren Kierkegaard’s work called Fear and Trembling is to demonstrate that religious faith is not like heeding the doctor’s advice about sun block. Apparently, the mood at that time (and I fear that it’s a mood dominate in all times) was that at conversion, a person automatically has faith. The idea is that faith is merely the starting point. As Kierkegaard puts it, “Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further” (42). For Kierkegaard, this notion is quite strange. As he cynically puts it, “It would perhaps be rash to inquire where to.” (42). The idea he seems to be communicating is that faith isn’t the beginning, but the destination. Perhaps an illustration would help.

Faith isn’t something that is completely blossomed at conversion. Rather, conversion is the point at which a seed is dropped into a soil. But a seed by itself makes no rose. Moreover, the seed of faith isn’t an easy one to cultivate. The reason being is that the environment in which we seek to nurture this seed to its end or aim is the most unfavorable. Imagine trying to nurse a seed to a rose in death valley. One would have to provide shade from the sun and continually saturate the ground with water fetched miles away. Also, it is necessary to blanket the area with manure. As it grows, perhaps a person would have to continually spray the fragile plant with ice water to insure it from shriveling up in the hellish atmosphere. Needless to say, the project is nothing less but painstaking. So it is for faith, according to Kierkegaard. At conversion, there isn’t an instantaneous blossom of faith. Rather, this seed must be continually tended to by the believer in the most non conducive environment. Whether it’s the aridity of life, the angst of existence, or the manure-like stench of circumstances, one must incessantly labor to develop this most fragile seed into the rose it was intended to be.

Is there a secular analog to Kierkegaard’s idea that faith is a task for a lifetime? I think there is. Professor Howard Wettestien alluded to this sort of analogue in the movie Dead Man Walking. Perhaps the idea that could be gleaned from this movie is that not only did the nun profess a belief in the basic goodness of humanity, but she had faith that it was the case with a particular hardened criminal. The criminal was recalcitrant to the pleas of the nun to repent of his evil doings. He gave every indication that mankind is evil at the very core. However, she toiled and struggled with the conviction that her belief was correct. Finally, at the time of the convict’s execution, the goodness of humanity burgeons in repentance and remorse on the part the convict. Notice that her faith in the faith of humanity wasn’t a one shot deal, but a long task of labor.

Now that we have discussed the nature of faith, let’s discuss tests of faith. Not only did Abraham live a life of faith, but also a life of testing. In particular, God had tested Abraham’s trust on several different occasions. In Genesis chapter 12, God commands Abraham to leave everything that he knows and loves, in order to venture to an unknown place. In Genesis 18, God tests Abraham in announcing his intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to kill the son that God had promised. We may view these three tests as successive. So, Genesis 12 may be regarded as the beginning of faith; a sort of conversion. Abraham has lived life one way, and now God tells him to go down a wholly different path that is completely unfamiliar. This is the stage at which faith is much like a seed. Genesis 18 may be regarded as a sort of mid-point in which he develops a sense of direction. Abraham is learning how he should regard his relationship to God and others. He is coming to grips with questions like the following: What’s the relationship between justice, mercy, petition, and God?

Genesis 22 reveals a sort of apex in which the very core of Abraham’s belief is placed in the crucible of examination. I want to suggest that this test reverberates back to Genesis 12 in which Abraham made a decision to step out in faith in obeying the voice of what may have seemed to him at that point, a foreign god. This God had promised at that time that if he stepped out, he would be met with particular blessings. However, in Genesis 22 this God now asks Abraham to sacrifice those particular blessings. Of course, this would suggest to any one else in Abraham’s shoes that they had made a wrong decision in Genesis 12. “I shouldn’t have listened to this voice.” “I should have stayed with everything I loved and knew.” So at this malevolent command, we would probably declare, “I will turn back to Ur of the Chaldeans.” But Abraham had faith.

What was the purpose of these tests? To give knowledge to God about Abraham’s spiritual state that he didn’t have previously? Or, to give this knowledge to Abraham, who didn’t grasp it? I say neither. If Kierkegaard’s assessment of faith is right (i.e., if it a task of a lifetime), then we may view tests of faith as circumstances without which faith would not develop. Perhaps another analogy would helpful here: faith is like a muscle, which only develops given its activity (i.e. exercise). Moreover, exercise is the sort of activity that includes constant tears and subsequent repairs of muscle tissue. But, to have these tears of muscle tissue, one must have resistance. In sum, physical development involves, in part, succession, resistance, and pain. Likewise, we may regard spiritual development as the same. The purpose of the tests given to Abraham was not to reveal something that someone didn’t know, but to provide a circumstance for Abraham to exercise this spiritual muscle. Put crudely, these tests were exercise sessions in which resistance was provided for the sake of spiritual growth and maturity.

Inferring Atheism from Bad Design

by JM

In challenge to the argument from the complexity of life to an intelligent designer, some have maintained that while this methodology may lead us to posit some form of intelligence, it would equally lead us to posit an inferior form of intelligence. This challenge takes the undeniable decay and disorder in the universe (e.g. like disease, old age, and death) and insists that a consistent proponent of intelligent design, (if he is to infer intelligence from the complexity of the world) must also infer a defective intelligence as designer.

The tactic here isn’t to admit to some transcendent cause of the universe (most who use this argument are atheists), but merely to show that people who use this methodology (Christian apologists) are forced to adopt an unwanted conclusion: That God isn’t a competent creator. It is at this point that the challenger feels content in the position that there is no scientific warrant for the God of the Bible.

There are at least two weaknesses in this conclusion:

(1) This conclusion would have force if the biological world is so flawed that the alleged design is such that one cannot in principle tell whether it is accidental or a product of a person. Put differently, since an object is so defective that it is nearly indistinguishable from something everyone agrees is not designed, then there is no warrant for claiming an intelligent cause. For example, a canvas that is splattered with paint may be the product of an artist, or it may be the product of an accident in which a can of paint, residing on a ladder, falls from that ladder (let’s say due to an earthquake) into the current of air created by a fan in the room, which splatters some paint on the canvas. In either event, it’s quite difficult to come to some solid conclusions about the cause of this painting; whether it is intelligent or not; accidental or purposive. In this case, it is truly unwarranted to insist on intelligence as being the cause of the painting.

Now, I don’t think the challenger means this. Certainly, those who know anything about the complexities of a cell do not regard it as indistinguishable from, let’s say, a rock or a water molecule. Across the board, we affirm mind boggling complexity in biological entities. Even someone recalcitrant as Richard Dawkins admit that the world gives an overwhelming appearance of design. So, the issue boils down to whether the degree of complexity that we do view is equally explainable within an non-ID (ID meaning intelligent design) paradigm as it is in an ID-paradigm. The presence of flaws or dysfunction doesn’t immediately dismiss the inference to intelligence, provided that the complexity of an object is of such a level as to strain naturalistic explanation.

(2) Neither does the presence of dysfunction require the postulation of a bad designer or non-existent designer. Let’s say we were to drive up to a car that has flipped up on it side. One can picture the damage that’s done to the car (broken windshield, scratched paint, etc…). Now it may be the case that the car had a faulty design. For example, the wheels weren’t properly installed. If this were the case, we infer correctly that there was some flaw in the designer.

However, it may the case that the car was operated in a way that it wasn’t designed to. So it was designed take corners at 40 mph, not at 80 mph. This doesn’t reflect upon the intelligence of the designers (certainly, they have made cars that handle corners going that fast), but it reflects the limitation of the design (again, not the limitations of the designer).

Also, it may be the case that the car was designed to suffer this damage. Bob the stuntman drove a car that was designed to react this way when certain maneuvers were undertaken for the purpose of capturing the culmination of a thrilling car chase for a motion picture. So the dysfunction doesn’t immediately limit the competence of the designer.

In summary, the presence of pain, suffering, dysfunction, calamity, and the like are not the clear defeaters of the Christian world view that some would pretend. There’s enough complexity to require design, and there’s enough room within God’s creative possibilities that allow for good things to go bad.

Times of Refreshing

by JM

Reflections on Acts 3:19-21

Crimes that darken mind, counsel, darken heart
Fabric of Humanity, union with Deity, ripped asunder, torn apart.
Tribunal of Heaven thundering against vile and treasonness sin
Storm clouds of rustling anger, brewing with fever, Oh Justice of God which feeds them, poised to unleash the fire within
Son of God, the Son of Man, descending from darkened Skies
God-sent Deity, unveiled before humanity, visible to mortal eyes.
Bearing without a stain, the darkness of our mind, soul, and heart.
The Fabric of His Humanity, His communion with Deity, ripped asunder, torn apart
Tribunal of Heaven thunders mercilessly against righteous and untainted Son.
Storm Clouds of anger, brewing with fever, empowered by vehement Justice, breaks forth with darkened Sun
Lamb that was slain, cross that is stained, for union to restore
God abhorred humanity, man hating deity, enmity no more
Storm Clouds scattered, righteous Sun Arisen, Bow across the skies
Times of Refreshing, glory unending, a God-redeemed Humanity, for those in whom Jesusabides