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.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Monday quote

Some may blame Gideon for demolishing Baal's altar by night, fearing relatives and city fathers. I doubt that it matters. Did God tell him to do it by day? Did God tell him he couldn't be afraid? Or did God simply tell him to do it? Evidently obedience was essential and heroism optional.

Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Monday quote

Concern for the vulnerable may be what motivates your political stance. But they are not one and the same thing.

Glenn Peoples.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Israelite census

God told Moses to number the men Israel when they came out from Egypt then again nearly 40 years later. The first a year after leaving Egypt, the second before they entered the promised land. The census of the 12 tribes included the 2 subtribes of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh. The 12 tribes were divided into 4 companies of 3 tribes, each headed by 1 of the 3 tribes. They camped on different sides of the tabernacle. Levi was not included as they were set apart for service to God. They were counted separately and camped around the tabernacle.

The first census was in the 2nd year after leaving Egypt (Numbers 1). The census data is repeated in Numbers 2 with the division totals. The tribe of Levi is documented in Numbers 3. The second census was in the 40th year after leaving Egypt (Numbers 26).

All males aged 20 and over were counted for the nation census. All males aged 1 month and over were counted for the Levite census.

Israel had grown rapidly from ~70 males a little over 200 years earlier. Because of their unfaithfulness in refusing to fight the Canaanites they died in the desert. A similar number of men over the age of 20 (but none over 60) were alive ~40 years later. While every Israelite over the age of 20 died in the desert (Numbers 14), this may not have included the Levites. There was no spy sent from the tribe of Levi (Numbers 13), Levi had previously been zealous for the Lord (Exodus 32), and the Levite Eleazer (Exodus 6:25) entered Canaan (Joshua 17:4). Caleb and Joshua were also excluded from the punishment (Numbers 14:30).

Here are the numbers for the 2 censuses. The number of Levites does not add up; the sum of the 3 clans is 22,300 but the total given is 22,000. It is likely that the total is correct thus there is probably a transcription error for Gershon or Kohath.

Company Tribe Clan Census 1
Census 2
Numbers 1-3 Numbers 26
Reuben Reuben
South Simeon


Judah Judah
East Issachar


Ephraim Ephraim
West Manasseh


Dan Dan
North Asher





Gershon 7500

Kohath 8600

Merari 6200

22000 (22300) 23000

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Was Jesus wrong in his prediction concerning the end of the world?

It has been said that this prophecy of Jesus was mistaken,
Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24:34)
I do not wish to delve into a complete analysis of the Olivet discourse here, yet there are a few comments that need to be made.

The quote comes up when Jesus is leaving the temple having chastised the scribes and warned against them.
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2)
Later the disciples responded.
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
Note that the disciples are asking 2 and possibly 3 questions here, even though they may have thought they were asking about a single event. Jesus had said that the stones of the temple would thrown down. The disciples asked:
  1. when will these things be?
  2. what will be the sign of your coming?
  3. [what will be the sign] of the end of the age?
Questions 2 and 3 may be the same question though they need not be. In the subsequent discussion called the Olivet Discourse Jesus answers these questions but as there is 2 and possibly 3 questions, his answers address different components.

In his answer he warns them; he says things will be terrible; he says there will be deception; he says his return will be obvious. The initial question was in response to Jesus' comment about the temple stones, thus part of the answer refers to the Fall of Jerusalem, though it need not all be about the events 4 decades hence. If we read the rest of Jesus quote it reads,
So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matthew 24:33-36)
Jesus says,
  1. Recognise the time of the end at the time of the end
  2. This generation will not pass away until all these things take place
  3. No one knows the time
And he says all this together. So understanding his meaning must take this into consideration. What might "This generation will not pass away" mean then? I can think of at least 3 possibilities.

It may refer to the temple question. This generation will not pass away until the temple will not have one stone left upon another.

It may refer to the time of the end. The people living at the time of the end are to recognise that they live at the time of the end because of the signs and they can know that when these signs are all being completed the end will definitely arrive within this generation.

It may be better translated,
This generation will not pass away until all these things begin to take place.
In which case the things Jesus is talking about will commence within a generation.


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