Monday, 29 June 2015

Monday quote

Our culture tells a lot of lies about sex. Your teacher is one of the liars.

Matt Walsh

Monday, 22 June 2015

Monday quote

Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.

Joseph Epstein

Monday, 15 June 2015

Monday quote

There is no Bible verse that says chocolate cake is tasty, but that should not preclude coming to that conclusion.

Jason A. Staples.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

What is the gift?

In Ephesians we read:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Paul is contrasting a gift which is freely given with works which is what is earned. When mentioning gift, what is Paul referring to? The "gift of God" is referring back to the word "this" which refers back to words in the preceding phrase. The options as I see it are:
  1. Grace
  2. Salvation
  3. Faith
  4. The entire clause
I don't read Greek so can only offer some preliminaries on the language issues, but below I will show parallels to this elsewhere in Paul's writing.

The nouns in Greek are
  • gift: doron (neuter);
  • grace: charis (feminine); and
  • faith: pistis (feminine).
The pronoun "this" is touto (neuter) here. The verb "saved" is sozo.

Options 3 and 4 above are often proposed as the solution. The word "this" and the word "faith" are not in the same gender but I am told that this doesn't necessary exclude option 3.

There are several verses in which Paul uses similar phraseology. Elsewhere in Ephesians he writes:
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. (Ephesians 3:7)
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:7)
And in Romans he also mentions:
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,... (Romans 3:22-24).
The parallels in Ephesians and Romans associate the gift with grace. Comparing these parallels with our passage it would be reasonable to conclude that the gift in Ephesians 2 refers to God's grace.

Earlier is Ephesians Paul writes,
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
and in our passage he also says,
For by grace you have been saved through faith.
Clearly associating grace with salvation.

Now consider Paul in Romans,
For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:... (Romans 4:3-6).
Paul says that wages are not a gift, but that faith is counted as righteousness apart from works. As per Paul, faith is often contrasted with works. Works result in wages not a gift. But faith results in a gift. The same contrast is in Ephesians. By grace you have obtained salvation. And this is by faith, not as a result of works. The faith here is contrasted with works as it is elsewhere in Paul. So Paul frequently says that grace is a gift and he frequently contrasts faith with works and here in Ephesians he pulls both these concepts together. Grace is a gift; and it comes by faith not works. But somehow because these words all appear together an argument is made that faith is a gift. However it doesn't fit the contrast of the passage and it doesn't fit with how Paul writes elsewhere.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The reliability of the gospels

Peter Williams defends the gospels being authentic by appealing to names of people and places mentioned by the authors. The first 20 minutes discusses just the names of various persons. Held my attention, even though I was previously aware of this argument. Worth the 30 minutes.



Hat tip: canon fodder

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Faith and ineffectual regeneration

Jason asks,
Scripture does seem to indicate that saving faith is a gift from God. (Ephesians 2:8) While we are culpable for all our sins, including our unbelief, am I right in understanding that you believe God offers all people grace through faith (the kind that raises the spiritually dead to spiritual life) and that some people reject the offer? If that is correct, do you believe that faith is only operable upon receipt by the individual? In other words, how does one receive the gift offered if they are dead in their trespasses and sins?. You mentioned “ineffectual regeneration” in the post. I’m not sure if you accept that term or not, but if you do, do all people get “spiritually raised from the dead” and then spiritually die again if they reject?
I think that faith in 1 Corinthians 12 is a special gift of faith that is not given to all Christians; for example the sort of faith that can believe for miracles. This is because it occurs within a list where Paul states each gift is limited to some.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Corinthians 12:4-1)
Paul says: to one is given this, to another this; this includes faith. Then he summarises by saying, "to each one individually as he wills." This is not particularly controversial, even Calvinists see a special faith here.

I do not think that faith in Ephesians 2:8 is a gift (this will require a post of its own). So I don't see faith in God as a gift from God. I see it as our response to his calling.
Am I right in understanding that you believe God offers all people grace through faith (the kind that raises the spiritually dead to spiritual life)
Well, I wouldn't say "through faith." Part of the problem here is that I am addressing Calvinist terms which carry suppositions that I do not subscribe to. So I am trying to be generous by using the term they have chosen but this can backfire because by conceding the term it may seem as if I agree with their suppositions, or worse, they equivocate. So I don't mind the theological term "synergist" but I object to those who go from synergism to the claim that Arminians think that they save themselves. I would prefer to say that God is calling all men to himself. Because God is calling us that is an act of kindness, or, if you like, grace. This is usually called "prevenient grace". God does that regardless of whether we will have (saving) faith. By "saving" I mean the type of faith that results in God saving us, I don't mean our faith effects salvation for us. I don't think that prevenient grace saves people, it is God showing his kindness to us.

This prior state Calvinists call "total depravity" and (spiritual) death (Eph 2:1). So all men are in this state prior to God regenerating them and God effecting a saving faith in them. They claim this is effectual because God's regeneration can not fail to result in a man coming to faith and being saved.

Now I don't really agree with what Calvinists think "dead" means. Are people spiritually dead? Yes, but in the sense that they are lost without Christ. Those who die without him are damned. I don't think that we are unable to do things, nor do I think we are unable to respond to God. We are disposed against God but we respond to him. To the (hypothetical) question "can dead people do anything ?" my response is this is over-reading a metaphor. When Isaiah says all our deeds are filthy rags he is speaking hyperbolically. I believe men are fallen and sinful, and men are often worse than they realise, but I am cautious when people apply deductive logic to statements that are not meant as ironclad premises.

So God desires all men to be saved. He calls all men to himself. We can accept or reject God's call. That is what Arminians mean by resistible. Using Calvinist terminology this would mean that God's call is "ineffectual" in those who reject him, but this is not a useful term as it is subtly conceding that the call could be effectual. However Arminians don't think that the call is effectual or ineffectual. We don't think it works like that at all. Rather we think that faith is something we choose to have or decline to have. We do not receive faith. Faith is not something that God can cause; just as love is not something God can cause. This is not a limitation of God, this is the nature of love and faith. For love to mean anything it must originate from the person.

So people aren't made spiritually alive and then made spiritually dead if God's call is ineffectual. Rather God's prevenient grace is always at work and those who respond to God in faith God saves.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Monday quote

There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.

G.K. Chesterton

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Calvinist memes

Not a meme. But funny.
I have seen some discussions on social media, though not participated in, that involve Calvinist memes. I am aware that the nature of memes limit nuance, and that some claims are intended for their rhetorical effect: they attempt to focus on the main issue and statements may be hyperbolic. Nevertheless, several are just plain false. And I am somewhat taken aback at the superficiality of some Calvinists as well as their arrogance. However what most struck me was that they seem to hold to a theology that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul castigated in the Jews. But to that shortly.

So a search for Calvinist memes (and Arminian memes) shows that a lot of time has been put into this. I wanted to deconstruct a few of them which will lead to where I wish to go.
Unregenerate people are dead in sin and cannot choose God, it requires God's sovereign mercy to give life.
The problem here is that the contrast is not dichotomous. Let's assume that "deadness" prevents men from choosing God. How does that relate to God saving us? God is surely able to vivify a dead sinner so that he is able to choose God, or not. Such vivification does not necessarily entail salvation which is what "life" here means. And why sovereign mercy?
God chose Abraham but you choose God.
That God chooses means that we can't? So choice is not a communicable attribute of God? I'll see your Calvinist philosophy and raise you Scripture.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
Scripture constantly tells us to choose righteousness and shun evil. God tells us why he chose Abraham. Abraham responded to God in faith. God is always looking for faith. We are to have faith Christ. Choose life and live.
Would a loving God pick and choose? What about Israel being the chosen ones of God.
And this is just the point where (some) Calvinists are close to following the Jews into damnable doctrine. The Jews thought that they were in because they were the chosen people. So God sent his prophets against the Israelites again and again. Jesus warned that the Ninevites would be entering the kingdom before the Jews who rejected him (Luk 11:32). Paul warns several times in Acts and in his letters, including in the very book that Calvinists so love—their favourite chapter even—that being part the chosen race does not get you into heaven (Rom 9:6,31). You couldn't rely on being an Israelite then and you can't rely on being a Calvinist now. God does save men, but what does he say? Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (Act 16:31). God's criterion is faith.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Markers of authenticity in the resurrection accounts

There are several features in the gospels that speak to authenticity. By this I mean there are events that would seem unlikely to include in a forgery. While events in history may happen as expected, thus a record of such would occur in authentic and inauthentic documents, less convincing events would seem less likely to be recorded by a forger trying to convince others of his story. We judge convincing events by what the readers and culture would consider persuasive, not us.

A feature mentioned frequently by apologists is the first witnesses being women. In a culture that valued the testimony of men higher than women it would be less likely that a false story about Jesus' resurrection would have females as the first witnesses.

Another interesting feature of the gospels is the lack of seeing Jesus by several of the first witnesses. The empty tomb is the earliest feature. Why not have witnesses see Jesus coming out of the tomb? Rather we have an empty tomb with Mary Magdalene assuming others had taken Jesus' body (Joh 20:2).

Next, the inclusion of irrelevant features. The location of the grave clothes, who got to the tomb first.

Further, the disciples did not immediately believe the women. Though this may be consistent with the lesser status of women as witnesses in that culture, it would seem less likely that a forger would invent this response. Latter even Thomas was noted to disbelieve the testimony of several of his friends.

Lastly, when Jesus was seen he was not immediately recognised by his followers. Mary Magdalene thought he was a gardener (Joh 20:15). The disciples walking to Emmaus were prevented from perceiving his identity (Luk 24:16). Why write this into a fictional story attempting to convince others about Jesus' resurrection?

If the resurrection did not happen then the gospels are fraudulent. Yet several episodes are mentioned which would seem to be unusual for a false witness to include, a false witness seeking to convince others of the resurrection.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Monday quote

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

William Pitt (1759–1806).

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Are Arminians synergistic?

It is claimed that Arminians are synergists whereas Calvinists are monergists. I don't strongly object to the label but I am not certain it is helpful; especially when it is concluded that Arminians save themselves. This is obviously incorrect. The dispute is not whether God is involved: he is; it whether we are involved.

Calvinists argue that God regenerates us prior to faith and that this regeneration is effectual. By this they mean that such people do not fail to come to faith and thus are saved. God must regenerate men because we are depraved and depraved men do not choose God; and because we are dead in our sins and dead people cannot choose God. Thus we are all estranged from God; God, for reasons known only to him, chooses a man; God regenerates the man who responds in faith; and God saves him.

The Arminian would disagree with this process but he also disagrees with the framework. The framework fits with the Calvinist worldview so to argue about whether regeneration precedes faith, or whether God's regeneration is effectual, or whether depraved dead men can choose God assumes Calvinist concepts.

Arminians often argue for prevenient grace, but all that means is that God is, at all times, calling all men to repent: to turn away from their sin and follow him. Calvinists may wish to call this regeneration which they say is an ineffectual regeneration. Well if you wish. But it is not ineffectual because God is somehow limited in his abilities, it is ineffectual because of the nature of faith. Trust is something we have in God, not something that God is able to decisively bring about in man. God is certainly faithful, but men do not always believe that to be the case.

So back to synergism. The word is derived from syn (together) and erg (work). In science it means to work together, though theologically it means the combination of God's grace (his work) and man's faith; and faith is is not a work. So while God requires faith from me, the saving is all of him.

A father who is a mechanic has 2 sons whose cars are broken. The father asks his sons if they would like their cars repaired? The first son says yes and the father repairs the car; the other son says no so the father does not repair his car. Now neither son actually did any work on his car. Is the situation with the first son synergistic? Did the son do any work?

So do I mind being called a synergist? Not particularly. But to the extent Calvinists use it to misconstrue or misrepresent what Arminians believe it is unhelpful.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Monday quote

There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "All right, then, have it your way."

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done."

C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Monday quote

The office of government is not to confer happiness, but to give men the opportunity to work out happiness for themselves.

William Ellery Channing (1780–1842).

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Encouraging our children to persevere in the faith

In an article discussing why children abandon Christianity after leaving home, Liveway identifies the importance of teaching our children the truth of Christianity. Children don't need to (just) know a set of rules and a collection of common beliefs, but also doctrine; and not just the what of Christian doctrine but the why.

They also summarise a study looking at commonalities of those who remain in the fold versus those who leave.

Recent research out of Fuller Theological Seminary examined the long-term faith of teenagers, and the results were compiled in the book "Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids" by Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark.
Three features of children who persevere are
  1. Students with sticky faith are raised in a faith culture that emphasizes a relationship with Christ as opposed to an adherence to a set of rules.
  2. Students with sticky faith are surrounded by an intergenerational faith community.
  3. The most important factor by far in each of the lives of teens who developed sticky faith is a parent who is willing to walk with them through their faith journey. 
We need to focus them on Jesus, church them in community and (to an extent) resist a peer-only environment, and make sure we, as parents, are engaging our children in matters of faith.

While not included here, my pastor would add that children who serve in the church persevere more than those who just attend. We should get our children involved in various ministries. Examples would depend on the child but could include helping with younger age group ministry; sound; church setup; music; food ministries.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Round and exact numbers in Numbers

There has been some complaint about the census values in Numbers being round numbers. I don't see why this is a problem. A more sophisticated argument against the census is that the Levites were clearly counted to the man. Personally, I find these discrepancies quite interesting as they are the type of thing I notice when reading the Bible but that I encounter less frequently reading criticisms of the Bible.

In his book Why I Believed, Kenneth Daniels makes this case against the passage in Numbers citing several discrepancies ennumerated below. He rightly recognises that the first issue may not be a problem.
  1. The difference between the number of Levites per clan and the the total number of Levites.
  2. The rounding of the number of Levites compared with the precise number of firstborns; something he thinks is mathematically unwarranted.
  3. The self-serving behaviour of the priests in redeeming the excess 273 persons for 5 shekels each.
  4. The discordance between the number of firstborns and the number of mothers.
As a mathematically disposed person I appreciate the issue here. I have noted the difference between accuracy and precision, and get frustrated when data is presented in unwarranted precision. But one must be careful not to let his expectations of how he would do something dictate how something was actually done. Furthermore, there may be important reasons that we are missing by concentrating on what we deem important.

In Numbers 1 God tells Moses to number the Israelites from age 20 upwards (excluding Levi). The total number for each tribe is clearly to the nearest 100. Gad is rounded to the nearest 50. The reason for numbering men aged over 20 may partly be military as these are the men who go to war. Round numbers are adequate for this reason—though exact numbers are permissible. It may be that Gad included a small clan that did not reach 100 men so they would have included a number rounded to the nearest 10. If the number had been, say 47, then this would mean rounding to 0 for that tribe, and adding zero for that clan towards the total number of Israelites; but then that clan would be effectively excluded. A community approach to census allows for a round number, but no clan should be excluded. Thus round numbers are consistent with (but not necessary for) a communal focus.

The Levites are excluded from this count because they are set apart for God. But they are counted, though the focus is on all the Levites so the count is from age 1 month. The count is Gershon: 7500; Kohath: 8600; Merari: 6200; for a total of 22,300. Though the Bible gives the sum as 22,000. This is probably a copyist error as the summation for the other Israelites earlier is correct. Again, the number of Levites is given in round numbers which is acceptable as it was the community of Levites.

The number of firstborn males for all the Israelites was 22,273. These were the males to be redeemed. Redemption of people has an individual component. This is not to discount the importance of community, but biblically there is a sense of individuality associated with redemption.

So the rounded numbers are given in Numbers when communal qualities are in view: warfare and temple (tabernacle) service, but exact numbers are given for individual qualities: redemption.

The redemption of the firstborn meant that God exchanged the firstborn of Israel for all the Levites. It is appropriate to subtract the 2 numbers as the 2 groups are being exchanged. Now if the Levites had been counted to the man then subtracting the 2 numbers would have given a slightly different number, but that is not particularly relevant. What is important is that the rounded number of the Levites was the figure that they had. But as the exchange concerned redemption, one could not say the numbers are approximately the same as that discounts the importance of redeeming every individual. Saying 22,000 is about 22,273 says the numbers are close enough. Saying the excess 273 must pay 5 shekels is saying that every single firstborn male must be redeemed. The amount of money did not matter—it was not that much—but the knowledge that every individual was redeemed to a man was vital.

The amount was 1365 shekels of silver. This is not a large amount. Compare the amount of gold and silver used in building the tabernacle. If the priests were being self-serving why not just ask for a shekel per person on top of the Levite exchange.

Now God did not need to redeem all the firstborn of Israel as that is what the Passover accomplished. However the census occurred in the second month of the second year. In that time there would have been many births. The exact number is uncertain but some rough estimates can be considered. The total number of Israelites males over 20 was about 600,000. Probably a similar number of females of that age and more if we add those who may have gotten married from about 15. Of course older females would have finished having children and many other women already had had a firstborn male. But using the number 600,000 we get a ratio of 1:27 of women giving birth to a firstborn male in the previous 13 months. Or consider the total population. If we have 1.2 million men and women over the age of 20 the total population could exceed 2 million. A high birth-rate of say 50 births per 1000 persons per year would give over 100,000 births per year, over 8000 per month. The number of firstborn males redeemed were those born since the Passover.

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