Thursday, 31 July 2014

Three Arguments Against A Young Earth

I normally stay out of arguments about the creation of the universe but I've been asked a few times recently about what I think. So just in case you were wondering, I think a young earth is unlikely, and here are just a few reasons why.

1. From reasoning: It requires the possibility of a very short and artificial past.
Suppose you say that the universe is young but was created to look old. And by "young" you mean "a few thousand years." By allowing that possibility, you also allow the possibility that "young" could mean "a few seconds." If that was the case, then all our memories from more than a few seconds ago would be implanted there by God. Furthermore, it would also mean that the historic events of Jesus' life never actually happened, but God has created an artificial history that indicates they were. No Jesus, no crucifixion, no atonement. So, to allow a universe that is X years old but artificially looks like it is Y years old, with Y larger than X, is to allow some far-fetched possibilities.

2. From textual analysis: The writing styles of Gen 1 and 2 are vastly different to each other and to the rest of Genesis, and bear a striking similarity to other creation stories.
So what? Here's what. It means that they oughtn't be read as the same genre as the histories (e.g., Kings, Chronicles, etc.) but should be treated as parables or allegories. They are simply too different to be read as any kind of history.

3. From science: There's only one truth and scientific method is pretty good.
It would be strange and non-sensical if God created a universe with one truth and then gave a revelation with a contradictory truth. What we learn about the universe through scientific method isn't a threat to God, but is a way of rescuing us from superstition. It takes away from God the attributes that we have ascribed to God and allows us the space to focus our religious efforts on what really matters.

And just in case that was even in any doubt, I go back to Jerome's account of John the Elder.
The Blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to an extreme old age, and, at length, when he was with difficulty carried to the Church, and was not able to exhort the congregation at length, he was used simply to say at each meeting, My little children, love one another. At last the disciples and brethren were weary with hearing these words continually, and asked him, Master, wherefore ever sayest thou this only? Whereto he replied to them, worthy of John, It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.

What matters is this love, not quarrels about the origins of the universe. However, it seems that there is no end of questions about it.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Penalty is not Forgiveness

At the risk of being a cynic with no better plan I'm putting forward a criticism with no alternative. Calvin's theory of penal substitutionary atonement has bothered me for years. It gets brought out over and over, not just as the explanation for Jesus' death but as a necessary statement of faith for the believer. If I'm to hold to it, then I should confess that I deserve eternal damnation, and that my only way out of it is for someone sufficiently better than me (i.e. Jesus) to be punished on my behalf.

This atonement requires that God receives satisfaction, and the only satisfaction that God will accept is eternal damnation. In this model, God needs to administer punishment to fit the crime and is bound by that need; God is captive to the requirement for punishment.

And yet, God forgives. Jesus taught that God forgives. Jesus gave authority to his disciples to forgive sins. But what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is a restoration that relinquishes the obligation to make restitution or to administer punishment. If I forgive you, then I let go of any claim that you make things right.

Forgiveness is not penalty. Forgiveness is the acceptance of the other, despite any wrongs or injustice. Conversely, penalty demands reparation.

I think that there is a conflict between penalty and forgiveness. It seems to me that the teaching of Jesus was heavily in favour of forgiveness and so I'm skeptical of Calvin's theory of penal substitutionary atonement.

Note to evangelical readers
Please don't be offended by this. There have been centuries of attempts to develop a model of the atonement. The most popular evangelical model (Calvin's) is only five hundred years old. It's not "the one true interpretation" of the matter.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

I will show you the bride of the Lamb

I adore the moments of reading the Bible when a sentence comes alive. Perhaps it comes alive for the first time, or perhaps for a second (or third) time, but it's alive with possibility and meaning. Every time I do good exegesis, this happens. Sometimes it happens by accident.

This is one of those accidents.
"Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God." Rev 21:9-10
I normally steer clear of Revelation, mostly because I don't have enough background context for it. There are a few points in it that anchor it to the rest of the Christian Bible and I think this might be one of them. The angel tells John that he is going to show John the bride of the Lamb, and what he shows him is the new Jerusalem. This metaphor of the bride is only used elsewhere in Matthew and John. Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride.

For so long I (like others, I suppose) charged into this passage with the pre-formed idea that the new Jerusalem is the city in heaven, a picture of perfection for when God has finished the final transformation of the universe. And then I saw my mistake. The people of God don't live in this city. In fact, no one lives in this new Jerusalem. For the rest of the chapter there is no mention of anyone living there at all. People come and bring glory and honour into the city, but that's it.

So I read it again. The angel said he would show the bride, and he showed the city. The city is the bride. The new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven is the bride. This is the new work that God has done, and it is the church.
"I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it." vv22-24
This is a picture of the church as a blessing for others, not the picture of an afterlife blessing for the church. It reinforces the idea that the kingdom of God is God's interruption into this world, to bring a solution for this world rather than being a "pie in the sky when you die" solution.

For the believer, therefore, this is an encouragement to bring God's light and life and love into the world. We are the new Jerusalem that God has brought down from heaven for others. Once again, the Biblical texts show that the message of Jesus and the work of the church is for this world, in the here and now.

Picture credit: B Facundus 253v

Friday, 4 July 2014


I've been running a series of groups lately, teaching people ways to read the Bible. It's a kind of "exegesis for beginners" discussion group, aimed at people who might never pursue tertiary studies but who take the Bible seriously, as texts that should be read and understood and applied.

For that group there's no discussion of inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility. Nevertheless, they all see the Bible as inspired, as God-breathed (but not God-dictated). This is a serious claim. It's a claim of authority, a claim of revelation. The words in the Bible aren't just any words from any authors, they are words from inspired authors. Somehow, God's spirit has been involved in the production of the text that we have today.

But at the same time, the Christian belief is that God's spirit is also breathed into each believer. Each believer is inspired. This is especially true in the charismatic and pentecostal traditions, and taken all the way in the Christian Quakers' tradition. I like this quote from George Fox, as recorded by Margaret Fell:
"You will say Christ saith this and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God, etc.?"
In other words, if the believer is really inspired then they have some measure of authority through their experience of the spirit. Let's be clear about it. In this way of thinking, a Christian has God's spirit in them, making them inspired and this entails that the believer has inspired authority.

The various traditions will have much to say about this, I'm sure. Someone will probably say that a believer has to be "in the spirit" when they are being authoritative or that the believer's pronouncements cannot contradict the Biblical texts. They will cite texts like Rev 1:10 to support it. I can't help but feel that this approach is more like the vision of Yahweh's spirit in Ezekiel 1: the spirit descends to make a pronouncement and then leaves after it's done. The believer no longer has the spirit.

In a way it's like saying, "All my friends like my taste in music." If someone doesn't like my taste in music, they aren't my friend. "All Christians are spirit-filled when they live and speak as inspired." If the Christian experience is a genuine transformation then our lives and words will be inspired, and that will give us authority. We know what it is to meet someone who has committed their life to Christian charity. We can't help but listen to them speak. They have an authority about them. In a way, I think that this resolves the deadlock in the situation. A life transformed by God to discipleship and service is a life that will overflow with divine authority. But then, Jesus said something about that in Matthew 7.
‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.