Star Trek and my rejection of Calvin

uss_wells

Star Trek and the Prime Directive

I’m an avid Star Trek fan. I have probably seen almost every episode of each series in the franchise, and all the films so far except for maybe two. One of the major themes that occurs in ST is the Prime Directive, the overarching law made by the federation that no ships encountering a more primitive civilisation shall intervene or interfere with their culture in any way. Later on, we were introduced to the timeships, which came from a future federation, covered by a temporal Prime Directive, which forbade them from interfering in a timeline by changing events, which would affect the future. This is a recurring theme in science fiction, since the possibility of travelling back in time always carries consequences for the future. The very appearance of timeships from the future surely poses problems for the temporal Prime Directive, since who knows what that might change, considering all the possible variables present. To be able to predict accurately, one would need to know everything that was going to happen, forever. This is impossible… unless you’re God. Yeah, only God would have the ability to ‘alter a timeline’. Hold that thought…

Calvinism

117629-004-9f92c82fI was introduced to the basic doctrinal argument/ debate of Calvinism v. Arminianism in Bible College: Laying aside the complexities and details, to boil this down, Calvinism is the belief that salvation is entirely down to the work and choice of God (predestination) and has nothing to do with any decision or effort on our part, since we are all incapable of saving ourselves from our inevitable all-encompassing sin, and salvation is set in stone and unalterable, whereas Arminianism is the belief that we can choose to follow Christ and then choose to stop following him. Coming from a pentecostal evangelical fold that is avidly Calvinist, I was already immersed in that theological perspective enough, and perusing over his doctrine I came to admire and respect it as a wonderfully concise and ordered theology that draws perfect little pictures from scripture; it is very easy to argue scripturally, and very hard to refute. I have never read his Institutes – they’re quite extensive – but they have been boiled down and explained so precisely by his followers, there is little need to, except for his most devoted disciples. However… there were bits of it I was never comfortable with, and I sought to marry the two views, while still describing myself as in the Calvinist camp, due to the enormous amount of supporting scripture in the New Testament.

My main objections were twofold, with a third growing on me over time:

1. ‘double predestination’

Once you adopt the belief that God has chosen his ‘elect’ and that this was done ‘before the foundation of the world’ then you have to agree with double predestination i.e. if God has chosen some to be his elected inheritors of his kingdom of heaven, then that means he has also chosen all the others to be eternally lost/ punished/ burning in hell. The moral compass we all have must scream at us that double predestination is unjust! If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision? The standard answer to this was always that we were not to question God’s ways, decisions or ‘wisdom’ but this dismisses that natural inbuilt sense of right and wrong we have all been given, by God! Had I been told this doctrine before my conversion, I would have concluded that the Christians’ God was a total jerk and had obviously not elected me! I would have refused to even wish to follow such a ‘loving creator’.

2. MY choice

The clear recall I had of the process I underwent myself when I chose to follow Jesus was something I just had to raise each time I was presented with the ‘clear’ scriptures of Calvinism. It had to be rewritten in my memory as something that God had done: this was ‘irresistible grace’ (one of the key points of Calvinism), and I could have done nothing to avert that moment in time or stop it happening, when I made the decision God called me. Each time, though, I felt like I was in a science fiction story as a robot that had never been aware that he was not a human!

I even wondered at times why we were singing “I have decided to follow Jesus…”!!

3. Hyper-Calvinism

In time, I came to the realisation that so often, Calvinists fall into the trap of hyper-Calvinism, as if it isn’t possible to be a ‘moderate’ Calvinist, and one will always end up believing that not just our decision the moment of salvation, but every single event that occurs, and every action we take, is predestined to happen too. Me sitting here typing this has been ordained by God to happen! This takes the robot analogy to an extreme, since every part of our lives has been pre-programmed by an inventor and/or code-writer.

If all this is the case, then why do we bother at all with anything? Once this has become ingrained, certain beliefs and behaviours may follow in some cases, such as;

  • Pharisaism and a superior attitude that ‘we are God’s chosen ones’
  • a belief that moral behaviour is not important since salvation is set in stone anyway
  • preachers who believe that no appeal to others to come and follow Jesus is needed, since ‘his elect will be drawn by the Holy Spirit anyway’
  • the church need not be concerned with society’s problems since this is God’s will and has been ordained by God to happen to a world that has fallen from him – when you add in the prevalent belief that we are in the last days, then no desire to change society for the better can be stirred. Why waste energy trying to bail more water out of a sinking ship?

Any objections I raised that cast doubt on the Calvinist position was routinely shot down. It was as if questioning Calvin was equivalent to doubting scripture! “Is it not possible that God’s ‘election’ of us is based on his omniscience and knowing who will choose to follow Jesus?” was refuted with a clear “No, God the Father is the one who makes all the decisions and chooses whom he will save, from before time began!”

This unwavering adherence to reading scripture in such an unquestioning way has led to some tragic situations, like I blogged on before. However, as with many dogmatic positions, it favours certain parts of scripture over others, though adherents would never wish to admit to this. Just a few verses, off the top of my head, that appear to undermine predestination:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

Trying to fit this into the perfect picture of God selecting us before we were even born creates a lot of tight hoops to jump through. Or you can just ignore the hoops as insignificant (which is impossible for fundamentalist inerrantists!)

Quantum theology

I have long tried to present theology as similar to our quantum universe. Without going into the intricacies of quantum mechanics/ physics, let’s just say that it is now known that certain things in the micro-particle world defy logic and present clear evidence for two truths/ facts to co-exist in our universe, at the same time. For me, the apparent ‘contradictions’ in scripture are also contained in a concise way in the mind of God, the Creator of this quantum universe (in a way that is totally illogical to mere mortals).

However, it would be better if we could find things that do fit into a logical understanding, yes? If God wishes to be revealed to us, and that we should know him, then a clearer knowledge of him in our minds must be within his will. I realised that my original idea (most likely not original to me in that nobody else ever asked it) held some weight; what if God, at the beginning of time, knowing all things that were to happen, saw me on that day in 1979, seeking him and asking for him, and decided, there and then, that he would jump ahead of me (like a time traveller going backwards to ‘fix’ a timeline) and provide that ‘irresistible grace’ for me to respond to and so give me the means and the power to be able to follow him, since he would know that alone, I could not do so, and would fail at any attempt to be a ‘faithful disciple’?

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jer. 29:13)

God looks down from heaven on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (Ps. 53:2)

As I said, this was rejected by those who had studied Calvin: “No, God chooses us, we have no part in the process!” However, it has always struck a chord in my heart, since we know that in Eden, God clearly gave freewill to Adam and Eve; it was their choice to eat the fruit that was forbidden, and there was no high fence around the tree!

When we go to the favourite passage of Calvinism, we can analyse it quite easily:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29-30, emphasis mine)

Note those two words I highlighted: the Greek word for ‘foreknew’ is proginosko, but I don’t even need to go into any depth on that. It is used 5 times in the New Testament, and each time simply means what it translates as – ‘knowing beforehand’. The passage states first that God had foreknowledge of us, and then he predestined us! The choice was ours, but the empowering and the process is all his!

Still not with me? Confusing? This is deep theology, and trying to simplify it is an uphill task – I have gone over this a fair bit to make it easy to read, believe me. Let’s try the trusted tool of explanation for these things that Jesus used; the parable.

The Parable of the Determined Son

A father was asked by his children, what he would like for Christmas. He answered them that there was nothing specific that he’d like, except for one thing that he knew was far too expensive for them to buy him, even if they pooled all their savings, and he told them he knew that. They were to buy some smaller presents and not worry about it. The youngest child later told his older siblings that he was going to save up enough money to buy this present by going to all the neighbours and asking them to pay him for washing their cars or tidying their garden. No amount of explanation from them that he’d never earn enough would deter him.

They realised how determined their youngest was as he started putting money into his piggy bank, so they told their father. The father did not wish to dishearten the youngest by telling him to stop his quest, nor let him be disappointed, so late one night he sneaked into the boy’s room and put the amount of money needed into the piggy bank. When Christmas approached, the youngest came to his siblings and asked them to count his money with him to see if he had enough. When they added it up, they of course could not believe that it was all there!

What does this mean?

The youngest child had been the one to decide to get this present and put his heart into achieving it, but he was never going to be able to. The father saw the love and determination his son had, and provided the means for the son to be able to give his father the present he knew he wanted and that the son wished to give. If we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” as Jesus commanded us (Mark 12:30), then this must require effort on our part, borne from love. Such love produces action from us, or it is not love (John 14:152115:101John 2:33:225:3). Yet this action cannot produce any ‘saving power’ (Eph. 2:8-9) or achieve what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). God foresees all these actions, this determination to seek him, and intervenes to save us before we think that we must do these things to save ourselves.

To go back to Star Trek, what then is God’s Prime Directive? Freewill! The answer to the question of why he doesn’t intervene in the world more than he does, is that we know that he always left us to our own will and he will not make ‘first contact’. The ST version can be ignored once a civilisation develops warp drive and is about to embark on space travel, and so God ignores his own Prime Directive until we are the ones to seek him! For God to enter into our lives uninvited breaks that and makes a mockery of our statement that we are ‘left to our own free will’!

c-s-lewisI’m not rejecting predestination, I’m rejecting Calvin’s narrow and shortsighted interpretation of it.

I don’t accept his version, I accept what I read in my Bible.

I’m not saying that God does not ‘elect’ us to salvation by his own power, I’m saying that he doesn’t select us. Scripture teaches election, Calvin teaches selection. After all, when we elect someone, they have to stand for election in the first place!

In Calvin’s defence, though, he didn’t get to see Star Trek!

Grace be with you.free-will

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Star Trek and my rejection of Calvin. (full)

uss_wells

[This is an enhanced and lengthened version of a previous blog for external publication. If you prefer a shorter version, you can read it here.]

Star Trek and the Prime Directive

I’m an avid Star Trek fan. I have probably seen almost every episode of each series in the franchise, and all the films so far except for maybe two. One of the major themes that occurs in Star Trek is the Prime Directive, the overarching law made by The Federation that no ships encountering a more primitive civilisation shall intervene or interfere with their culture in any way. Later on, we were introduced to the timeships, which came from a future federation, covered by a temporal Prime Directive, which forbade them from interfering in a timeline by changing events, which would affect the future. This is a recurring theme in science fiction, since the possibility of travelling back in time always carries consequences for the future. The very appearance of timeships from the future surely poses problems for the temporal Prime Directive, since who knows what that might change, considering all the possible variables present. To be able to predict accurately, one would need to know everything that was going to happen, forever. This is impossible… unless you’re God. Yeah, only God would have the ability to ‘alter a timeline’. Hold that thought…

Calvinism

117629-004-9f92c82fI was introduced to the basic doctrinal argument/ debate of Calvinism v. Arminianism in Bible College: Here I’m laying aside the complexities and details of all the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ which Calvin wrote, to boil this down to the most basic debate; Calvinism is the belief that salvation is entirely down to the work and choice of God (predestination) and has nothing to do with any decision or effort on our part, since we are all incapable of saving ourselves from our inevitable all-encompassing sin, and salvation is set in stone and unalterable, whereas Arminianism is the belief that we can choose to follow Christ and then choose to stop following him. Coming from a pentecostal evangelical fold that is avidly Calvinist, I was already immersed in that theological perspective enough, and perusing over his doctrine I came to admire and respect it as a wonderfully concise and ordered theology that draws perfect little pictures from scripture; it is very easy to argue scripturally, and very hard to refute. I have never read all of his ‘Institutes’ – they’re quite extensive – but they have been boiled down and explained so precisely by his followers, there is little need to, except for his most devoted disciples. However… there were bits of it I was never comfortable with, and I sought to marry the two views, while still describing myself as in the Calvinist camp, due to the enormous amount of supporting scripture in the New Testament. What has surprised me is how much he is revered, to the point of being almost as ‘divinely inspired’ as the Holy Bible itself! There is not one school of theology that has all the truth, and certainly no theologian who has infallibility. That should be a ‘given’, yet Calvinists usually get very obtuse if you even dare to question any point that Calvin makes. How dare someone as lowly as you or I stand up to challenge him! I knew this attitude existed in a successful church I belonged to for many years – the senior pastor was not to be doubted!

My main objections were twofold, with a third growing on me over time:

1. ‘double predestination’

Once you adopt the belief that God has chosen his ‘elect’ and that this was done ‘before the foundation of the world’ then you have to agree with double predestination i.e. if God has chosen some to be his elected inheritors of his kingdom of heaven, then that means he has also chosen all the others to be eternally lost/ punished/ burning in hell. We are all endowed with a moral compass, a sense of justice, and Christians are always arguing with atheists that such a moral compass has to have been instilled in us by a divine creator, or else we would have rampant moral relativism, with no agreed sense of right and wrong within any society. Having this moral compass must scream at us that double predestination is unjust! If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision? No factor in your (yet to be lived!) life, character or behaviour (or of your brother) would have any bearing on the outcome! You’d wonder why you should have bothered being any sort of good or obedient son at any time, wouldn’t you? The standard answer to this was always that we were not to question God’s ways, decisions or ‘wisdom’ but this dismisses the natural inbuilt sense of right and wrong we have all been given, by God! Had I been told this doctrine before my conversion, I would have concluded that the Christians’ God was a total jerk and had obviously not elected me! I would have refused to even wish to follow such a ‘loving creator’. The problem I see is that many who blindly accept this are safely cocooned in a subculture of fellow believers where their ‘picture’ of God is easy to like and acquiesce to, since God ‘smiles’ on them (and has smiled since the beginning!). It does not produce a very pleasing picture of God to those outside the scope of that smile… but then again, if ‘God has not chosen to smile on them, then so be it’ – my soul cannot help but scream out against that portrayal of my Lord and Saviour.

2. MY choice

The clear recall I had of the process I underwent myself when I chose to follow Jesus was something I just had to raise each time I was presented with the clear scriptures of Calvinism. It had to be rewritten in my memory as something that God had done: this was ‘irresistible grace’, and I could have done nothing to avert that moment in time or stop it happening, when I made the decision God called me. Each time, though, I felt like I was in a science fiction story as a robot that had never been aware that he was not a human!

I even wondered at times why we were singing “I have decided to follow Jesus…”!!

3. Hyper-Calvinism

In time, I came to the realisation that so often, Calvinists fall into the trap of Hyper-Calvinism, as if it isn’t possible to be a ‘moderate’ Calvinist, and one will always end up believing that not just our decision the moment of salvation, but every single event that occurs, and every action we take, is predestined to happen too. Me sitting here typing this has been ordained by God to happen! This takes the robot analogy to an extreme, since every part of our lives has been pre-programmed by an inventor and/or code-writer. Have you seen those scary sci-fi movies from the 70s and 80s where the protagonist in the story only finds out at the end that either they, or everyone around them, has been a programmed machine all along?

If all this is the case, then why do we bother at all with anything? Once this has become ingrained, certain beliefs and behaviours may follow in some cases, such as;

  • Pharisaism and a superior attitude that ‘we are God’s chosen ones’
  • a belief that moral behaviour is not important since salvation is set in stone anyway (though I have never encountered this belief personally, it would seem to have been something Paul had to address (Rom. 6:1) )
  • preachers who believe that no appeal to others to come and follow Jesus is needed, since ‘his elect will be drawn by the Holy Spirit anyway’
  • the church need not be concerned with society’s problems since this is God’s will and has been ordained by God to happen to a world that has fallen from him – when you add in the prevalent belief that we are in the last days, then no desire to change society for the better can be stirred. Why waste energy trying to bail more water out of a sinking ship? (This has also led to some families ‘home-schooling’ their children but with zero education since they see it as unnecessary in a world just about to be overthrown/ redeemed!!)

The Hyper-Calvinist position is surely self-defeating in preaching the gospel to God’s creation! When I was a good little smart atheist (before I decided to become a Jesus follower at 14), I argued with the Christians in my school, throwing up all the philosophical quandaries I knew they hated. A favourite was “if your God is so good and just, why does he allow so much suffering in the world?” This was especially good to use when we had just heard news of some atrocity somewhere, or heard how a little toddler had been beaten to death by their own parents! The answer was always ‘freewill’ – God gave man free will to do as he wished, in Eden, and did not interfere with man’s choice to ‘go his own way’. So all the suffering in the world is down to us, and ‘original sin’, and our foolish desire to continue ‘walking away from God’. However, once you encounter this hyper version of the Calvinist, you have to throw your hands up in horror as you realise that they are rejecting freewill and stating that every event in history is preordained… so that toddler who suffered was because ‘God ordained it’!!! YES!! If I am ‘blind’ to see this ‘scriptural truth’ I am happier to not be as blind as them!

Any objections I raised that cast doubt on the Calvinist position was routinely shot down. It was as if questioning Calvin was equivalent to doubting scripture! “Is it not possible that God’s ‘election’ of us is based on his omniscience and knowing who will choose to follow Jesus?” was refuted with a clear “no, God the Father is the one who makes all the decisions and chooses whom he will save, from before time began!”

This unwavering adherence to reading scripture in such an unquestioning way has led to some tragic situations, like I blogged on before. However, as with many dogmatic positions, it favours certain parts of scripture over others, though adherents would never wish to admit to this. Just a few verses, off the top of my head, that appear to undermine predestination:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

Trying to fit this into the perfect picture of God selecting us before we were even born creates a lot of tight hoops to jump through. Or you can just ignore the hoops as insignificant (which is practically impossible for fundamentalist inerrantists!)

Quantum theology

I have long tried to present theology as similar to our quantum universe. Without going into the intricacies of quantum mechanics/ physics, let’s just say that it is now known that certain things in the micro-particle world defy logic and present clear evidence for two truths/ facts to co-exist in our universe, at the same time. For me, the apparent ‘contradictions’ in scripture are also contained in a concise way in the mind of God, the Creator of this quantum universe (in a way that is totally illogical to mere mortals).

However, it would be better if we could find things that do fit into a logical understanding, yes? If God wishes to be revealed to us, and that we should know him, then a clearer knowledge of him in our minds must be within his will. I realised that my original idea (most likely not original to me in that nobody else ever asked it) held some weight; what if God, at the beginning of time, knowing all things that were to happen, saw me on that day in 1979, seeking him and asking for him, and decided, there and then, that he would jump ahead of me (like a time traveller going backwards to ‘fix’ a timeline) and provide that ‘irresistible grace’ (one of the key points of Calvinism) for me to respond to and so give me the means and the power to be able to follow him, since he would know that on my own, in my own strength, I could not do so, and would fail at any attempt to be a ‘faithful disciple’?

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jer. 29:13)

God looks down from heaven on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (Ps. 53:2)

As I said, this was rejected by those who had studied Calvin: “No, God chooses us, we have no part in the process!” I do know why they maintain this; they are keen to stand on the truth that it is grace from God that saves us and nothing of effort, so to admit that we make the choice might undermine Jesus’ perfect work. However, it has always struck a chord in my heart, since we know that in Eden, God clearly gave freewill to Adam and Eve; it was their choice to eat the fruit that was forbidden, and there was no high fence around the tree! My proposal was not that salvation is achieved by our effort, but by God’s empowering of an initial choice we make that we wish to turn around (repent) from the walking away and walk towards God. With no grace, that desire would come to nothing, like the alcoholic who might desire to stop drinking but find no strength to do so. The desire to become righteous will not produce righteousness, but God stepping down to meet us at that point where we turn and look back is the way he imputes righteousness upon us.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5:6)

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Rom. 3:22)

When we go to the favourite passage of Calvinism, we can analyse it quite easily:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30, emphasis mine)

Note those two words I highlighted: the Greek word for ‘foreknew’ is proginosko, but I don’t even need to go into any depth on that. It is used 5 times in the New Testament, and each time simply means what it translates as – ‘knowing beforehand’. The first line of verse 29 states first that God had foreknowledge of us, and then he predestined us! The choice was ours, but the empowering and the process is all his!

Still not with me? Confusing? This is deep theology, and trying to simplify it is an uphill task – I have gone over this a fair bit to make it easy to read, believe me. Let’s try the trusted tool of explanation for these things that Jesus used; the parable.

The Parable of the Determined Son

A father was asked by his children, two sons and a daughter, what he would like for Christmas. He answered them that there was nothing specific that he’d like, except for one thing that he knew was far too expensive for them to buy him, even if they pooled all their savings, and he told them he knew that. They were to buy some smaller presents and not worry about it. The youngest child later told his brother and sister that he was going to save up enough money to buy this present by going to all the neighbours and asking them to pay him for washing their cars or tidying their garden. No amount of explanation from the older siblings that he’d never earn enough would deter him.

They realised how determined their youngest was as he started putting money into his piggy bank, so they told their father. The father did not wish to dishearten the youngest by telling him to stop his quest, nor let him be disappointed, so late one night he sneaked into the boy’s room and put the amount of money needed into the piggy bank. When Christmas approached, the youngest came to his siblings and asked them to count his money with him to see if he had enough. When they added it up, they of course could not believe that it was all there!

What does this mean?

The youngest child had been the one to decide to get this present and put his heart into achieving it, but he was never going to be able to. The father saw the love and determination his son had, and provided the means for the son to be able to give his father the present he knew he wanted and that the son wished to give. If we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” as Jesus commanded us (Mark 12:30), then this must require effort on our part, borne from love. Such love produces action from us, or it is not love (John 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1John 2:3; 3:22; 5:3). Yet this action cannot produce any ‘saving power’ (Eph. 2:8-9) or achieve what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). God foresees all these actions, this determination to seek him, and intervenes to save us before we think that we must do these things to save ourselves.

To go back to Star Trek, what then is God’s Prime Directive? Freewill! The answer to the question of why he doesn’t intervene in the world more than he does, is that we know that he always left us to our own will and he will not make ‘first contact’. In Star Trek, the Prime Directive can be ignored once a civilisation develops warp drive and is about to enter space and travel at faster than light speed, and then any space-travelling civilisation can make contact (as the Vulcans did when they were the first to see Zefram Cochrane’s warp signature). So God ignores his own Prime Directive once we are the ones to seek him! For God to enter into our lives early and uninvited would break that and make a mockery of our statement that we are ‘left to our own free will’! However, the moment of our decision, seen by God from his vantage point at the beginning of time, is the moment he is able to fill our piggy bank with all the grace we need to be righteous enough to be saved.

The Calvinist can come back with a retort like the quote from Jesus’ own lips: You did not choose me, but I chose you… (John 15:16), but this must be taken in context (as always). Jesus was addressing the Twelve, the close apostles he had called to… “follow me” and in his words and prayers, he draws a distinction between his present disciples and those who are to come after (e.g. John 17:20). Even if you do take ‘you did not choose me’ to literally apply to every Christian in all eternity, you can still ask the question ‘what caused Jesus to choose this one but not that one?’ The Calvinist, in their headlong rush to destroy any vestige of belief in ‘salvation by works’, insists that it is purely the choice of God alone and our decisions have zero bearing on that. In that I see God with a hand-cranked basket of lottery balls, lifting out names as they turn and land over the rest, and God must roll up his sleeves like a magician to show ‘look, no trick!’ as he ‘proves’ to us all that there is no reason to it other than pure fortune. There has to be some mechanism by which God makes the choice, and I propose it is as I have laid out.

c-s-lewis

I’m not rejecting predestination, I’m rejecting Calvin’s narrow and shortsighted interpretation of it.

I don’t accept his version, I accept what I read. To be fair to Calvin, though, he didn’t have Star Trek.

I’m not saying that God does not ‘elect’ us to receive salvation by his own power, I’m saying that he doesn’t select us. Scripture teaches election, Calvin teaches selection, and these have a subtle distinction. After all, when we elect someone, they have to decide to stand for election in the first place!

Grace be with you.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The first of the Ten Commandments is often quoted and preached upon, and while it applied to Israel in a time they were tempted to worship other gods or go after them for blessings and assistance in some matters, I have often heard that it should apply to us too, since we may be capable of placing other ‘things’ before our Lord and allowing them to be ‘worshipped’ in some way. One might argue that is a bit of a stretch if you are talking about things which are naturally important to us and prominent in our lives, like family or jobs. However, Jesus did make a stunning declaration about following him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)sermon-mount

Many have tried to downplay the word ‘hate’ here as if it means ‘love less’ or ‘make secondary’ yet it is the word miseo, which means ‘hate’! In the context of ‘everything else Jesus said’ of course, we have to find an explanation of it, since we are commanded by him to love absolutely everyone! Why would we be commanded to love our enemies, yet hate our own family? Best answer I can offer is that the natural ties we have are to be regarded as below ‘loving others’, so our devotion to our families must be no more nor any stronger than our love of anyone else; we should love all people equally. Interesting? Something to ponder?

What is clear, however, is that Jesus demands our devotion to him first, and that he is not to be equated with devotion to anyone or anything else. An alternative translation of the first commandment is ‘Thou shalt have no other gods beside me’ so that would fit with the idea that God has no equal, no partner, no cohort he will allow to be venerated or worshipped like him.

Fair enough? Let me suggest a common mistake many make regarding this commandment. Some time ago, while I was still a freshman (as they call it in the US) at Bible College, I came across a woman who believed that John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ meant her Bible! I was surprised at myself that I suppressed a laugh, since I had this picture in my mind of a black leather gilt-edged KJV sitting beside God at the beginning of the universe! I quietly explained to her that ‘the Word’ here is the pre-eternal name of Jesus [note: capitalised (in English)]. He is the one who was both with God, and was God, from the beginning and will be forever. By equating her Bible (the word of God) to being the Word, she was actually allowing it to not just be with God as I had pictured, but to be God (that is what John 1:1 states). Does this mean then that when I read my Bible, I hold God in my hand? Or within the app on my phone, in 64 different versions?

While this may be something we can laugh over, I have come to the conclusion that it is more serious a problem than one might first think. I know plenty of believers who adore their Bible, talk about it in ways that you’d think was reserved for lovers or family members… and right away I recall that command Jesus made about family! If nothing is to come between us and God, or to be equated in reverence with God, then this must include our Bible! Please don’t ask for a Venn diagram of that – our Bible sits squarely within the box marked ‘everything’.

The Jews hated idols, just like the Muslims do today. They were commanded not to worship them, and they strove to have no graven images to which they bowed or showed reverence, but human nature being what it is, they had to have some tangible thing to sit in awe of, in their synagogues. So they created special manuscripts from specifically prescribed forms of hide, written in a specific mixture of ink, which were not to be touched by vile human hands or anything else debase, so they made silver psothebystorahointers… were you to drop one of these scrolls on the floor, I am sure you would hear gasps of horror! Some Muslims do exactly the same thing with their Koran, wrapping them in beautiful silk scarves and handling them with such delicate care. Do Christians do the same? I did know of believers who were shocked at the idea of me tossing my old worn-out Bible into a bin once I got a new one! What was I supposed to do? Burn it on a ceremonial barge on the river Jordan with prayers? Revering the paper and ink IS idolatry, sorry!

However, I do love my Bible! I read it constantly, and try to find new things I can learn from it, and strive to live by what I glean from it. Thankfully, the English word ‘love’ can be used for anything from ice cream to God, so when I say I love something I know I don’t love it more than I love Jesus. Or can I be sure? If it is possible for me to fall in love with someone, or some thing that I love doing, which distracts me from following Jesus, then can it also be possible that my Bible could distract me too? There may be many ways, but the question raised surely is this: “if my Bible is simply the words of God in written form, then how could that be possible?” Right away, I arrive at the kernel of the issue as I see it. The ‘standard’ position of the fundamentalist who holds to ‘inerrancy of scripture’ on this is that ‘every word of our scriptures has been written by God’. Known as ‘plenary inspiration’ (a good description here), it ascribes God’s inspiration to the complete Bible as we have it today, and decries any attempt to ‘water that down’. This is perfectly understandable since we do not wish to allow a ‘take what you want and ignore the rest’ faith in Christ (even though many who maintain ‘inerrancy’ do so with some commands they don’t like!), but while I have never held this ‘plenary’ position (which is not the default position within the whole church and never has been), I have never been one to take a pair of scissors to my Bible! I prefer what scripture says about itself, that it is all ‘God-breathed‘ (2 Tim. 3:16). I see the hand of God and his redemption story and plan throughout, from Genesis to Revelation, but many parts are limited in understanding simply due to the human writers, since it was written by people of an ancient time, who had limits on knowledge and a lack of things we now know. Therefore to find an ‘archaic’ view of something in my Bible is not a problem to me; I don’t need to explain it or defend it. However, many believers, fixated on their irrefutable plenary doctrine, tie themselves in knots defending what is text on a page of a book, in the belief that they are defending their faith, or even defending God!

Let’s take a couple of examples for illustration: in the book of Job, we have a record of God speaking to Job where he asks “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail…” (Job 38:22); we now know that God does not have ‘storehouses’ of snow or hail. We know how they form now, through our study of meteorology. Of course, everyone says that this is metaphor/ poetry/ allegory, even though it is a record of God’s actual words to Job. So was God revealing a truth to Job according to his limited understanding? Then we encounter the creation account in Genesis: this is taken as literal by so many who would easily accept the metaphorical aspect of the passage in Job, yet reading Genesis 1 without the blinkers of devotion can see clearly that it is the description of a flat earth at the centre of the universe, with night and day occurring before the creation of the sun and moon. Why is there this ‘blind devotion’? It might be because it belongs to the Pentateuch/ Torah, the first five books of our Bible also known as ‘the Law’. From some Jewish tradition we have inherited, it is part of that ‘given’ to Moses directly by God, yet there is no support for this (and Moses even dies before the end!). So much of this comes from cultural tradition and not a direct reading of scripture. It’s all supposed to be literal historical narrative, yet in my evangelical Bible College, we studied the first 11 chapters of Genesis separately to the rest – chapter 12 is when the famous Abram appears (later called Abraham).

I do ponder how some parts that we can now see with modern knowledge can be accepted as not literal, yet other parts cannot! What is it about the creation account that it just must be adhered to? I’ll not go into any speculation about politico-historico-cultural stuff here, but my point is simply this: in trying to explain our faith to non-believers, do we not realise that an insistence on a literal reading of Genesis 1 is perceived as one of the most idiotic stances in the 21st century? If we try our hardest to state that every word is literal, and that it is not describing a flat centric earth, is that not just plain denial? If we apply a rational mind to it, then surely a realisation must occur! To continue in this conformity, then is it not akin to ignoring or covering over the truth? Is that not a description for lying?

flee_idolatryFor me, it truly is a blind devotion, by faith, and that means that your faith in a book is unshakeable (even though you’d be prepared to forego the ‘storehouses’ reference in Job!), and right away, I worry. I worry that such devotion that should only be reserved for God and God alone, is given to what is an object on our shelves or a program in our computers and phones!

I actually don’t want any debate on this – I’ve had enough over my life! I know where I stand on this issue, where I have always stood, and it has never affected my faith in Jesus as my Lord. I simply want fellow believers to consider what they’re doing. If you are not ready to accept it, I’ll leave it there.

Grace be with you.

21st Century Paraphrase: James 1:27 (true religion)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27 NIV)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the rich and those who already have all they need and to keep oneself from being put off trying to emulate them by the bleeding hearts. (James 1:27 21CP)

21st Century Paraphrase: Matthew 7:6 (casting pearls before swine)

I shall undertake to do an occasional series of my own paraphrases of well-known verses from scripture, stylised and updated to reflect our modern culture.

‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matt.7:6 NIV)

‘Do not post online to trolls what is sacred; do not get embroiled in arguments on social media with imbeciles. If you do, they may trash your holy words with their politico-religious mantras, and turn again and again and troll you to death. (Matt.7:6 21CP)

Grace be with you.

The Prodigal Father

prodsonI awoke early this morning. This is very unusual for me; I only find it hard to get to sleep on rare occasions, but once I do, I usually need to be awoken. It’s one of the duties my wife performs diligently, believe me!

One of the things that awakens you unexpectedly is pain. This time it’s not the pain from my wounds received on the operating table, but it is pain in my chest, since that is where the heart lies.

In my book, I used a wonderful thought from a devotional that said we should change the name of one of the best known parables. It is called the parable of the lost son in the NIV and other translations, but we have known it as The Prodigal Son for a very long time. I used to think that ‘prodigal’ meant lost, many have thought it to mean sinful, but it simply means wasteful, reckless or lavish. The devotional I read suggested we call it The Prodigal Father since it was the father who was reckless in giving his wayward son his inheritance too early and lavish in treating him so well on his return. This new angle was a wonderful one, and the parable has so many angles; I even used the elder brother in an earlier blog.

I knew at the outset of my book that I would face trials, because the search for true contentment means that I must learn, and my Father in heaven seeks to teach me. I have faced a lot lately, and some I never foresaw; some unexpected, like awaking in hospital facing death after a brain haemorrhage, some physical, like my recent operation and recovery, some nightmares, like the awaking again in intensive care and the flashbacks and paranoia I underwent (only briefly, praise God, but the memories remain). The last time I sought contentment, I asked God to stop teaching me, since I couldn’t take it any more. Now I’m stronger, but I’m at the point of asking him again.

Now this is a pain I cannot bear; it is worse than all that has gone before. Now I know, Lord, I understand! The Prodigal Father lost contact with his beloved son, and stood looking to the horizon every day for his return, never knowing. How long, Lord? How many years did it take for that return to happen? We are not told in the story, but I want to know, because my own daughter has gone, cut the ties, changed her number. A father-daughter relationship is special; I honestly don’t think a mother really ‘gets it’!

The parable is there to tell us about the pain that a loving father went through, so we’d know just how our heavenly Father weeps for his lost children who have gone their own way, and never pray to him. I feel it now, Lord, just as Hosea had to suffer an adulterous wife to grasp how you felt about your children going after other gods, I now know exactly what that Prodigal Father felt. I know what you feel. Please stop the pain now! This hurts too much, my emotions are in a total mess. I want the lessons to finish. Please.

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2Cor. 12:9)

Grace be with you, readers.

The sin of Sodom will destroy this nation!

This is something I’ve blogged about before, specifically. The overall issue is one I repeat quite a lot since it’s one of my ‘hobby-horses’ i.e. something that people who know me might say I bang on about quite a lot. Guilty! I keep saying it because it seems that nobody wants to hear it these days. Now I feel even more sympathy for the Old Testament prophets, the weird bunch of misfits!

It should be safe for me to say that in God’s eyes, all sin is sin, and all that we might think are ‘righteous acts’ are to him, relatively, no more than ‘filthy rags’ – thank you, Isaiah! (64:6). God cannot bear sin in his presence, and so crafted the master plan of the atoning blood of Christ for all our sins to be covered so that he can no longer see them… A MASTER PLAN INDEED! Praise his holy name.

However, might it also be possible that certain sins or vices anger God more than others? He really did get very irate at that idolatry thing in the Old Testament, for instance, so might there be some things that we should avoid in order to placate his wrath against us? The way many preachers rant about certain things, you’d think there’s something in that! If it is true that God will judge now as he has done before (but in an age of grace that’s a HUGE debate!), then we would be wise to take note. Take just one example: Sodom (and Gomorrah – it’s often forgotten, poor city). Sodom is a byword right through the Bible for God’s judgment; prophets of the Old and writers of the New refer to it as an example of how God can expunge an entire city (sorry, two cities) in one act of divine retribution for their acts of disobedience – he reigned down fire from heaven upon them! In these references, there are differing approaches or contexts; idolatry is mentioned (e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos & Deuteronomy 29), as is ‘sexual immorality and perversion’ (Jude). However, Ezekiel is particularly specific – as with most prophetic utterances, he is actually addressing Jerusalem, and comparing ‘her’ with her ‘sisters’, the other cities:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. Samaria did not commit half the sins you did. You have done more detestable things than they, and have made your sisters seem righteous by all these things you have done. Bear your disgrace, for you have furnished some justification for your sisters. Because your sins were more vile than theirs, they appear more righteous than you. So then, be ashamed and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous.

(Ezek. 16:49-52)

So in order to be careful we do not suffer the same fate (if we truly fear it may happen), then let us enact laws and campaign for such vices to be legislated against and hinder their development. Since one of the clearest ones is greed; Ezekiel said “this was the sin…”, we need to ensure our government provides for the poor and needy, and restrains the greed of individuals. If we let them become too arrogant and unconcerned (and let’s not forget overfed i.e. gluttony), we might incur such unquenchable wrath from God.

I find it incredible that greed (and gluttony) are hardly mentioned in evangelical pulpits. Well, no, I’m not surprised – the religious right mind control police have their agendas, and they are as clear as crystal to me. There are many Biblical references to the consequences of greed, or of not looking after the poor and needy – loads, in fact, and they are very scary (look them up)! Greed is even called idolatry in the New Testament (Eph. 5:5 & Col. 3:5)! We may think that idolatry is an ‘old thing’ but it actually still pervades everything today – it is when I see people making themselves very rich from “the preaching of the gospel” that I get irate myself and think of ‘the moneychangers at the Temple’, which is the only time we read in the gospels that our Lord Jesus let his anger get physical! Divine wrath indeed!!

But take heart, Ezekiel goes on to tell us in the rest of that chapter that God will restore the fortunes of Sodom (and Samaria), once the sin of his own people has been exposed and they are contrite and repentant for the worse things that they have done (and they – sorry, we – shall be restored too), and he foretells of the new covenant he will make for us. Praise him for his grace!

Let us repent of such things, and help ‘restore Sodom’s fortunes’ by showing the way of that new covenant.

Grace be with you.