Five Points on Calvinism

I wanted to share some thoughts on Calvinism and defense of it. This is topic that is often mentioned, but I wanted to put down a little more detailed description of my beliefs, and maybe something that can be discussed on top of these points. But first, let me clearly say that this is indeed a challenging topic that many have debated, and I hope to express some humility: I certainly don’t have the answers. However, I believe it is still worthwhile to think about and discuss with an attitude of humility. So here it is, my Five Points on Calvinism (sorry for the pun 🙂 ):

1. I consider myself a Calvinist. But I would also warn against Calvinism if it leads you towards fatalism or against the belief in free will and responsibility for your decisions. If you believe that predestination means that you have no agency or opportunity to shape the future, then reject predestination. The reality and truth that our will decides the future is a hundred times more important than any truth found in Calvinism. And any errors of Armianism or open theism is a hundred times less significant than the errors of fatalism.

And furthermore, if you have any tendency to believe that just because God sovereignly ordained past events, that they prove and demonstrate God’s pleasing will, what he desires, then run from Calvinism. There are countless evil situations, evil leaders appointed, and tragedies that have occurred that God has sovereignly allowed. Let us not think for a second that this even suggests that this means God is pleased by these tragedies and evil. If you are prone to look at events in the world or your life and accept them as good simply because “God is in control”, I would suggest reconsidering what God’s sovereignty means. If these two dimensions of God’s will are confusing, Calvinism is not worth the confusion.

I would also warn against middle ground fallacy here, and seeking a compromise in semi-Calvinist views. I think the most reasonable alternative to Calvinism really is open theism. From my perspective, “middle grounds” seem more like mix and matching different views of God in whatever way is convenient. It is equally pernicious when we freely define some things as unavoidably according to God’s will and others as outside of His will based on whatever we like and dislike.

2. It is my conviction to avoid using the term “reformed” to describe my beliefs in predestination and free will and instead use the term “Calvinism”. I believe it is disingenuous and historically inaccurate to use “reformed” to describe a specific understanding of predestination. The reformation was not primarily a movement for or against a position on free will, but is best summarized by the five “solas” of the reformation, a dissent against other elements that were being added to the notions of grace, faith, and salvation. The primary debates about predestination actually consisted of reformed theologians on both sides (Arminius was definitely reformed). Declaring one side as true “reformed” is an example of “no true scotsman” rhetoric, not only a logical fallacy, but a underhanded means of attributing falsehood to dissenters by exclusion.

This is shady rhetoric, but it also blurs the focus of what being reformed should really be about. It is not a commitment to a specific understanding of sovereignty. What being reformed means to me, and what I prize is a commitment to the five solas: salvation defined by scripture alone, received by faith alone, through grace alone, by Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. These are the fundamental ideas that shape my theology and life, apart from any debates on the nature of sovereignty.

I also recognize that “Calvinism” is also not a historically accurate term either. John Calvin certainly taught on many subjects, and distilling it down to beliefs on predestination is simplistic. But, at least this term is also widely known, and I would rather misrepresent one person than the entire reformed tradition.

So, back to Calvinism…

3. The question of the nature of God’s sovereignty is not only a theologic question, but deeply intersects with the philosophy of determinism, and how we define the meaning of free will. Free will is the process of how we come to make decisions in our life. According to libertarian free-will philosophy, free will is only free if it is not predetermined. However, I believe this is confusing our feelings and perception of free-will, the feeling or experience of free-will as being from external constraints in our decision-making. However, as a Calvinist, I believe that our decisions are actually the direct result of our (mostly) internal thoughts, feeling, and goals. Every action, decision in the world is either the result of existing causes, or it is not, and when something is not meaningful related to some cause, it is by definition, randomness. Every decision is primarily either the result of our meaningful decision-making deterministically driven by our characters, values, and desires, or it is primarily randomness, unmeaningful rolls of the dice, coming out of nothingness.

Philosophically, Calvinism is known as compatibilitism. If God gives us the desire for chocolate ice cream, is our free will violated when then go to an ice cream shop, and gladly choose chocolate ice cream? No! If God gives us a passion for dance, and knows we will use it, have we then lost our free will if we then joyously choose to dance? No, absolutely not! God’s sovereignty over a deterministic universe and our free-will are not incompatible concepts, rather they point to the fact that our free-will is our experience of who we are, determining our decisions.

I believe that Calvinism, properly understood, should in no way diminish the consequences of our actions, or the responsibility that we bear in our actions. If we point a gun at someone, the decision to pull the trigger will leave the victim every bit as alive or dead, and leaves with every bit as much responsibility for the action, regardless of whether God knew or ordained it ahead of time. If our free-will is compatible with God’s sovereignty, so are the consequences and responsibilities that go along with it.

Therefore, I believe that our free will is primarily meaningful and deterministic, not caprice and randomness. And my belief in Calvinist determinism is a belief that God is directing a meaningful world, not a random world of people making decisions out of nothing, without cause or meaning.

4. Of course, the nature of God’s sovereignty is indeed very much a theological question, and receives such attention because it is crucial to theodicy: how does suffering and evil exist, if God is good?

It is worth actually considering two aspects of this question. First, does evil originate from God? And second, why does he allow suffering to persist in this world?

The Arminian answer is to appeal to human’s free will as the source of evil, in order to vindicate God. To these questions, the suggested answer is that our free will is the origination of evil, and suffering persists because of our sinful actions.

I simply don’t find this to be a very compelling. This vindication of God sounds like a child declaring that it is not “his fault, it is the thrown ball that decided to arc downwards into her sisters head that is to blame”. If you set something in motion, knowing how it will (or likely will) result, I believe there is (at least, to some degree) a responsibility for the outcome.

And while defining evil’s as originating from our wills may provide some semantic separation from God in origination of evil, it is does very little to answer the second question. The reality is that the majority of suffering and pain we experience is not due to direct evil actions on the part of others, but rather natural forces like disease, natural disasters, etc. Excusing a small part of our suffering to free will is like providing a 25% discount on God’s evilness. He may not be terribly bad, He is just really bad. And arguing that these diseases and disasters are somehow the actions that God had to inflict as a result of our sin is like the child who argues that he had to hit his sister in the face, because she was saying bad things. This is constructing an arbitrary and unnecessary cause and effect. It strikes me as a pretty weak answer to these questions. Do we really want to strip God of sovereignty to the point that he is relatively impotent demi-god, losing most of his battles, for the sake of excusing himself? Does this realistically offer much assurance of future victory?

Rather than making excuses for and lessen God’s control of the world, I believe it is far more compelling to look towards transcendent purpose and meaning in the meta-narrative of this world. I find a compelling analogy in God as an author. An author isn’t evil because he has crafted a story with evil characters, these are part of what provide the contrast, the challenges, the twists for good to be displayed most vividly, for good to be victorious in a meaningful way.

The Biblical analogy of light and dark points to the value of contrast to bringing meaningful illumination. Indistinguishable light may be comforting, but does not fully and truly reveal the light source, and our show the beauty of colors against the backdrop. And this is meaningful in time as well, God’s progressive and gradual revelation brings greater significance and clarity to His righteousness.  In answering the question of why suffering persists, it is because of the beauty of contrasts, and gradual unfolding of His story.

Scriptures make no effort to obscure God’s role in ordaining and creating those that who are perpetrators of evil, and clearly indicates the purpose of showing the contrast of good and evil, to fully show His goodness. Paul (Rom 9:22-23) plainly says that He is made “vessels of wrath” to contrast against those that act merciful, which He “prepared beforehand” in order to make “known the riches of His glory.”

But how do we answer the first question, of the origination of evil? Does this mean we are claiming that God created evil? This would indeed be the case, and would be an unacceptable claim (Psalms 92:15, 1 John 1:5), except that this conclusion is actually based on a false assumption: that evil needed to be created to exist. But again, the scriptural analogy of light and dark is revelatory: darkness is not an actual entity that is created, it is the absence of light. And likewise, evil is really the absence of righteousness. In other words, God created a world, in which His righteousness is not fully and instantly revealed and applied. And because His righteousness has not entered every part of the world, the absence of righteousness, evil, is plainly visible and common. God didn’t create evil, he create a world that was not fully imbued with His righteousness, and the manifestation of this world lacking righteousness, is man acting evil. This doesn’t mean that evil isn’t an active and powerful force, it certainly is, but it is a force that consists of suppressing light, oppressing good, a force defined in the negative.

In short, rather than trying to vindicate God by trying to remove or lessen His role in precisely and exactly ordaining a world that has tragedy in it, I think we should see creation, in its current form, as a point in a path, the necessary and meaningful way for God to destroy evil with the progressive unfolding of His goodness and righteousness. While acknowledging this may feel uncomfortable, this is what scripture seems to teach.

5. As hotly debated as this topic is, from my observations, the behavioral implications seem pretty small (whereas beliefs like cessationism, dispensationalism, prosperity theology, and Zionism seem to have more substantial and observable negative implications). This is a key reason why I try to refrain from being dogmatic about this issue (and as mentioned earlier, would even push people away from my belief if it would cause fatalistic or other negative implications). However, that being said, I think there are a couple implications that I believe should result from Calvinism (although they certainly don’t always).

First, I believe that acknowledging others’ lives and decisions as inevitably affected and shaped by the numerous forces and experiences they have lived through, helps us to empathize with them. Ignoring this often results in looking at others, judging them by an isolated view of the “bad decisions they have made”. But this implicitly involves superimposing the expectations derived from the benefits of our own life experiences, education, and upbringings, than expecting the same outcome in others. A deeper view of how our decision making actually works brings us greater sympathy towards others.

Furthermore, a naive idea of others decision making as an equal isolated islands of free-will, allows us to free ourselves from any responsibility in our lives. But a fuller perspective of a deterministic world, with every life developing from many complex inputs, in a complex web of interactions, where we are all deeply intertwined, should cause us to recognize the ways that our interactions with others is significant and meaningful.

Again, it is easy to look at someone’s broken life, and blame them for their “bad decisions”. But along the way, did they grow up in a disadvantaged home, that we ignored? Was their education neglected in ways, that we could have helped out with? Did they go hungry, when we could have fed them or advocated for them? Those living with their poor decisions, certainly bear responsibility for their own decisions, but in a Calvinistic worldview, so do we, if we have neglected them.

Second, Calvinism brings focus on the glory of God as the highest and central goal of God and us, as followers. This stems from the fact that in a universe sovereignly and deterministically ordered by God, defining any smaller goal, any of the battles we try to win, as the ultimate goal is nonsensical, as God could simply end or win such battles instantly. Calvinism forces us to see that the only truly coherent overarching goal of God is one in which the struggles of humanity persist because the process of, and the way they are overcome, can be manifested, showing God’s glory.

An analogy might be to consider how a shift in goals affects our own behavior. First, imagine the goal of driving across the country to get to New York. This goal, wholeheartedly pursued, simply involves getting across the country as quickly as possible, with as little interruption as possible. Now imagine changing the goal to driving across for the purpose of writing a book about it. This second goal, while on the surface may look similar, is actually very different. Taking the time to make the trip significant and memorable, and doing the trip well, become the primary objectives, so that the journey can be fully appreciated. In other words, the “glory” of the trip, and how it can be shared, takes precedent over simply getting to the other shore. Having a higher, transcendent purpose overarching the goal of getting across America completely transforms our approach.

Likewise, pursuing God’s glory properly shapes our view of goals like evangelism, discipleship, church growth, social justice, and other pursuits as subordinate to the ultimate goal. And consequently how we do them, in a way that reflects God’s ways, is as important as the results of the subordinate goals.

To be clear, these implications of Calvinism are perspectives that I believe Calvinism should hopefully point people towards. However, in reality these perspectives can be shared by non-Calvinists as well, I simply think it is more of direct implication of Calvinism.

Regardless of how we attempt to understand and make sense of mysterious concepts of determinism and free-will, I do hope we can grow in our understanding of how deeply our lives are intertwined, and that we can more fully appreciate and enter in to God’s beautiful story of revealing His goodness, and make that our ultimate vision.

Theology of Evidence-Driven Research

I wanted to go through the exercise of attempting to develop a theology of my vocation. Several years ago, I read Darrow Miller’s book, Lifeworks, in which he challenged readers to do this, and since then I have wanted to jot down how that might look for me. My intent is not to write this to justify or self-congratulate my work, but rather I believe it is a worthwhile exercise to think through the principles that drive our work and different goals of that work, and as a result, hopefully, bring focus on the right goals and motives, and talk about the theology that shapes our work with you.

I believe one of the core concepts that undergirds the purpose of work is the creation/cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28, 2:15): We are called to join God in the continuing project of creation, and furthering the work of creating and innovating for the sake of building a better world. We join God in every aspect of this mission, from technology, to health, to ecology, to economics, reflecting the heart of a creator God, who created a world of beauty and purpose, by continuing to build with beauty and purpose. My job is focused on the medical/health and technological pursuits of this mission.

There are different aspects of my work. I am a software developer, so I spend my work hours programming. However, I also work on software designed to accomplish something specific. I work for a company (Doctor Evidence) that does analysis of clinical medical studies for the purpose of evidence-based decisions. I thought it might be more interesting to focus on the theological principles that speak to and intersect with the goals of our industry and what our company (should) hope to achieve within this field (this post is not really focused on the technology I work on to accomplish those goals). Here is my attempt…

Research

An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Proverbs 18:15

The Bible repeatedly upholds the virtue of seeking truth. And this is and should be the driving force behind research, to understand, to gain knowledge, to discover the nature of reality, to uncover what we have not yet understood. I believe the pursuit of truth is not something we should presume to be easy, as if we can sit back and declare truth based on our own intellect. The pursuit of truth and understanding requires hard work and careful investigation. It involves thinking through questions and problems. It involves learning from the work of others, researching prior efforts, and building on that.

Evidence-Based Research

Taste and see that the LORD is good
Psalms 34:8

Research is the discipline, the starting point of seeking truth, but ultimately truth is about discovering reality, and determining if our ideas really match with reality. This means that we do not simply settle for ideas that sound good, but we seek to actually test those ideas against reality. We (not our company, but those we work with) run in experiments against the real world (with patients), to see if our ideas are really true or not. Evidence-based research and decision-making, means looking beyond our conclusions that may sound logical and good, and checking them against the hard-reality of experiments and studies. It means letting our decisions be based on real data, rather than just our intuitions or even logic. A genuine pursuit of truth begins with humility: we may be wrong, so let us test our idea.

Seek to Disseminate Information

But seek the welfare of the city
Jeremiah 29:7

Knowledge, just for our its own sake, puffs up (1 Cor 8:11), but when knowledge, that is valuable for others, is sought and shared for the sake of others, this is following in the path of love for those around us. When we do research, and share our discoveries, we can, God willing, seek truth not for our own pride, but for the benefit and welfare of our society. It is exciting to be in a place where we can help reveal things that will actually help the sick and hurting around us!

In capitalist society, many jobs offer compensation in proportion to their benefits that they can bring to their customers. However, research can be unique in that may bring a fair compensation from a paying customer, but that same knowledge can then be limitlessly and freely shared with others who may benefit as well. In other words, research brings benefits to society that vastly outweigh the natural compensation that markets may offer the researcher. It is my hope that our research/analysis can and will do that.

This actually intersects with our technology practices as well. As software engineers on our team, when we write individual software components that we believe could be of value to and reused by others, we try to open source these components, make them freely available for others to use. This often does require extra effort; for software components to be reusable, we have to put extra time into make sure they are well-documented and tested for others to be able to efficiently use them. However, I believe this pursuit is something of value, in seeking the welfare of our community of software developers, aside from our efforts in medicine.

Ruthlessly Counter Biases (randomized and blinded trials)

The heart is deceitful above all else.
Jeremiah 17:9
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age,
let him become a fool that he may become wise.

1 Corinthians 3:18

Humility in our pursuit of knowledge should drive the next principle as well. We recognize that even in earnest pursuits of knowledge through research and experiments, that we are still prone to biases, and that confounding variables can still skew data. We must relentlessly look for and seek to work against biases in our research.

In our industry, that means that the preferred approach to studying treatments is through randomized control trials, an experiment where have researchers have intentionally limited themselves from their own selections biasing experiments. Through randomization, researchers eliminate sources of biases by handcuffing themselves from any designs that would introduce additional confounding factors.

Most RCTs go further and are “double-blind” experiments, where not only are the patients randomized, but they are “blind” to which treatment they are receiving (an intervention or placebo), and even the researchers that are assessing the outcomes are “blind” to which patients are receiving treatments, to further prevent biases.

Of course, there are still many ways biases can be introduced (like reporting bias). One of our goals with our software is to help identify when and where factors like funding or study design may introduce biases so we can know where to focus on eliminating them. There is much work still to be done.

Meta Analysis

In an abundance of counselors there is safety.
Proverbs 11:14
And I went…in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.
Gal 2:2

As honest, careful, and earnest as our research and efforts may be, we are still finite in our ability to measure, assess, and determine reality. Scriptures wisely instruct us that the pursuit of truth is a collective effort. And this is certainly the case in the world medical research. Any given study may be useful, but there is much more insight that can be gained by a looking at as many studies that address a question as possible. By looking at numerous studies, and combining their results, we can evaluate questions and create recommendations that are far more robust, less prone to any individual bias, and more reliable than any single researcher or study could provide.

Helping to create this type of analysis of numerous studies, or “meta-analysis” is one of the principal goals of our software that we build. Furthermore, our goal is to facilitate continuous meta-analysis, create an analysis that can easily be updated and re-executed as new studies are performed and become available.

Transparency

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed
that will not be known or brought out into the open.

Luke 8:17

Finally, the pursuit of knowledge and truth is something that should be done with transparency. If we simply claim to have done a good job with research and analysis, but fail to show others how we came to our conclusions, we are not showing our claims as verifiable. Any honest effort at showing new claims must be done in such a way that others can examine and critique the claims, and how we arrived at them. This is something we should, and hopefully do pursue in all our work, clearly showing every step, and every calculation that we made to arrive at our results, so they can be examined and verified by others.

Again, my intent with this is not pride or vindication in what we are doing. Examining our goals, from a Biblical standpoint, should help sharpen my aspirations as an engineer, and be a reminder of where I can improve my efforts. And hopefully this is an encouragement to others to look at the goals and efforts you make a work, and how they can align with God’s mission.

Advocating For the Poor

There are well over a hundred verses in the Bible about caring for the poor. These take various forms: some condemn the wicked for their oppression or disregard for the poor, some talk about God’s concern for the poor and the hope He offers them, and many are also direct mandates to care for the poor. Of these verses, most of these speak in general terms about caring for the poor, but others discuss the specific ways that we should care for the poor. While the general nature of these verses should compel us to care for the poor in any way possible, there are more specific mandates. There are two main mechanisms to help the poor;we find a number of passages instructing us to give to this poor (financially, or with goods), and there are also sets of passages instructing us to advocate for or defend the cause of the poor. These passages include verses like Psalms 72:4, Proverbs 29:7, and Proverbs 31:5-9.

These verses are translated in variety of different ways, including “defend the afflicted”, “care about justice for the poor” (NIV), “defend the poor”, “care about the rights of the poor” (NLT), “defends the poor”, “knows the rights of the poor” (ESV), “considers the cause of the poor” (NKJV). In contrast to giving to the poor, these verses speak to the importance of working to ensure that the poor have a just, fair, and equitable life and opportunity in society. This might have the most literal implications for a judge, but for us (assuming you aren’t actually a judge), we need to think a little more about how we can proactively pursue this command.

Outside a direct position of making judicial or governing decisions in regards to the poor, I believe our primary role in fulfilling this command is found in advocating for the poor. As citizens we do indeed have an influence on government. And following these two Biblical categories of instructions for the physical welfare of the poor, giving to the poor and advocating for the poor, the first can be carried out by offering our material (financial or goods) resources, the second by offering our influence (certainly we should also pray for the poor and care about their spiritual and relational needs as well). Our giving page talks about opportunities for the first, but I wanted to consider our second in this post. While often it may feel that the only way we can help the poorest of the poor is with money, advocacy gives the opportunity to invest our time and voice as well.

I have previously written about how our citizenship is a profoundly substantial resource. And this isn’t just a subjective superlative, our influence as an American voter can be objectively and literally measured; every voter effectively influences roughly $25,000 per year in government funds, which doesn’t even include other impacts the government has. If we are called to defend the poor, our voting privileges give us the ability to defend the poor with advocacy that has potential for very meaningful and substantial benefit to the poor.

So what are ways that we can defend and care for the poor through advocacy? And what does that look like for an American citizen?

The great opportunity that we have is found in simply contacting our representatives and encouraging them to have concern for the poorest. There are numerous bills to consider and budget decisions that they will make, and as they come to focus, we can easily email, write, and call them to push that to consider first and foremost how to protect the most vulnerable. Even calling a representative is very easy. An aide will answer the phone, you can tell them what position you want your representative to take, and they will politely record your response. Remember, they want your vote, so they are always very friendly, and will never argue or dispute (unless, perhaps you insult them, but I have never tried that).

Probably the easiest and most effective way to get involved in advocacy is to join or even just follow (mailing list, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you prefer) a poverty advocacy group. These groups often will research and follow legislation as it is considered, and send information on who you can call and when, to promote bills that help the poor. These groups all invest effort in research to ensure that they are advocating for the most effective measures and policies to help the poor. There are several great groups that help citizens advocate for the poor:
Bread for the World – This is Bible-based Christian group, working to fight for the poor, here and abroad, although they tend to be more focused on domestic issues (I tend to believe that domestic policy tweaks are more complicated with smaller impact).
RESULTS – This group is probably the best organization at specifically equipping and training people to advocate for the poor in an effective way. They offer numerous ways to engage, and provide a lot of assistance in how to influence representatives, and will often organize in-person meetings with representatives and letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers.
ONE – This is probably the largest poverty advocacy group, and they do a great job staying focused on the most severe international poverty issues. This group is more focused on mobilizing large numbers of people, so they offer very-low effort advocacy opportunities (sometimes just clicking through to sign a petition, sometimes encouraging a quick phone call), but don’t tend to push for as much depth as RESULTS.

There are also a number of other advocacy groups that also do great work, but tend to be more focused on technical suggestions and in-person lobbying, or advocacy with foreign governments, rather than getting members to advocate. This is very important and effective work, but these groups are supported more through financial donations, and rely less on personal advocacy. This may be a great way to be involved if you have more money, and less time (but I wanted to focus more on personal advocacy in this post). These include groups like Jubilee (focused on debt relief and more technical trade and tax issues), International Justice Mission (focused on criminal justice systems in other countries), and Oxfam (focused on an array of social justice issues with various governments).

It is easy to be cynical of online advocacy. We often see online petitions going around. Does this really have any impact? Recently, our local RESULTS group sent out a request to contact representative Chris Stewart to encourage him to co-sponsor a bill that starts a working group in USAID to better support child and maternal health in developing countries. There were about seven or eight of us that called his office to encourage co-sponsorship, and sure enough, he agreed to sign on. It is worth understanding the significance of this. Representative Stewart represents about 700,000 people. Each of us were effectively representing the voice of about 100,000 residents by our simple phone calls! This is an incredible level of influence and impact! People often think that voting is the key to change, but our vote has a relatively small influence compared to the influence we carry by actually contacting our representatives.

Some may be concerned that some of the policies may not be effective. These groups’ advocacy is often focused on aid efforts, and often “foreign aid” is frequently criticized. However, “foreign aid” tends to be an unhelpfully vague term, often encompassing completely different types of international funding from military funding of other developed countries, to programs really directed at the poor, and an anecdotal examples of waste and misuse tend to ignore the incredible impact of well-targeted aid programs. Most of the efforts that advocacy groups fight for are around health initiatives, education, and microfinance. They are very well monitored, with excellent accountability, that save and empower countless lives and really are about giving the poor a fair opportunity, saving them from the injustice of preventable diseases, inaccessible schooling, or lack of basic capital. There may be critics of other types of foreign aid, but there is little, if any actual debate about the positive impact of such efforts to help the poor. In fact, it is almost undisputed that these efforts save more lives per dollar than basically any other government expenditure. This is less of question of efficacy and more about making the poor a priority. This is very straightforward way of simply being a voice to help the poor.

Finally, in closing I’d like to point out that one of the great things about advocacy is that it is complementary to giving. Are you already giving all you can to help the poor? Great, you can engage in advocacy without have to cut giving somewhere else. While you glorify God with your finances by giving, advocacy is something you can do with your time and voice.

Kris’ 2015 Book Reviews

It’s a little late, but here is a review of the books I read in 2015. I actually didn’t finish most of these books, or in some cases skimmed them pretty quickly. I think I have increasingly felt that when my goal is to gain more knowledge (or wisdom), with limited time, the time it takes to fully read a book is sometimes better spent spent quickly skimming or reading several book summaries, and gaining the broader perspective of multiple authors. Of course, I don’t expect that to be true for everyone. If you have more time to read, or actually enjoy reading… Anyway, here are some quick summaries of things I have read (at least some of, even though I didn’t finish all these books).

A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof – This book followed Nicholas Kristof’s amazing book, Half the Sky. This is a great book, as it looks at some of the great injustices in our world, and focuses on practical ways that we can help. This book is not mere theory and sad stories, it is full of hope and concrete, positive suggestions. However, I personally grew a bit bored reading this book; I think Kristof follows all the same blogs and research that I do, and his suggestions echoed what I heard others say (although I certainly agree with them). However, I don’t think that would be as much of an issue for others.

A Farewell To Mars by Brian Zahnd – A friend posted that this book was available for free, so I thought I would skim some of it. I was very impressed, Zahnd is in incredible author, and this book is remarkably thought-provoking and challenging. Brian Zahnd is focused on resisting the urge towards violence, and even though I am not a pacifist, his perspective is very thoughtful and his challenges to the church should definitely be heard.

Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly – Easterly is a well-known aid critic, so I wanted to read for another perspective. He offered some good insights. Most of these critiques are actually more aimed at improving the quality of our research, approach, and efforts to help those in developing countries, not to eliminate such efforts. Unfortunately, his comments are often pulled out of context and used by those looking for an excuse to not be generous and help the developing world.

The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier – This book examines the countries where the poorest of the poor live, and what are the forces that have kept them in poverty. This looks at the frustrated issue of fragile and unstable states and the economics of international trade and considers the right time for military intervention in countries that face violent upheaval. This book is considered a classic of international development, and I learned a lot.

Politics for Christians by Francis Beckwith – This book is more about political philosophy. I suppose it is a decent survey of how different philosophies have shaped politics, but it ultimately doesn’t deal directly with existing political issues (at least in any useful or distinctively Christian way), nor offer any real meaningful or new thoughts on the subjects. The preface, by J.P. Moreland, on Christian integrative thought was really good, though. But it went downhill once the book actually started.

Healing by Francis MacNutt – This is a good book looking closely at the subject of healing, and is regarded by some as the definitive book on the theology of healing. I didn’t read the entire book, but skimmed through some of the key parts. I am already a believer in healing, so I don’t think he really suggested anything contrary to what I already believed. One particular entertaining aspect of this book is seeing the intersection of a Catholic priest in pursuit of social justice working side-by-side with the charismatic movement. What a fun combination this must have been (and I am not being sarcastic, there are great stories at these intersections of perspectives). Probably the most challenging and defining question about healing (at least for those that believe in it) is how we understand and respond when healing doesn’t or hasn’t yet occurred for someone. He had a chapter on this, which offered some insights, but I think there could be a lot more to explore and consider on God’s purposes in this, that the book only lightly touched on it.

Most of my reading during a typical day is outside of books, so I thought I might mention a few favorites there. My favorite blog (of original content) is probably still Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology, who continues to produce very thought-provoking content (even if I don’t agree with all of it). My favorite new (to me) blog I started reading is Bruce Wydick’s Across Two Worlds. Wydeck is a Christian economist who has extensively studied and researched child sponsorship programs, and found very positive results, and he offers a lot of unique perspectives.

The Church and the Kingdom, Part 2

This is part 2 in a series on the way my understanding of certain term used in the bible and in Christianese has changed and how that has affected my faith. You can read the first part here. 
In the previous post, I looked at what I have been learning about the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Kingdom. I used to vaguely consider these simply other words for Christianity, but I have come to think of these as very distinct. The Church has the specific purpose of nurturing, training, and preparing people to follow Christ, and ultimately model the community that should arise from following Christ. The Kingdom is the actual actions of following Christ. In this post, I want to consider a few other terms, and how they relate.

Other Terms

Within scriptures, the word “Christianity” is never actually used, and other forms, like “Christian” are only used a few times. There are instead several other words that are used that are applicable to our concept our “Christianity”, and I wanted to try to describe my understand of these distinct words and concepts.

The Believers

This is the most simple and straightforward description in scriptures for the collection of people that believe in and follow Christ. This is probably most analogous to what we mean when we say “Christians”.

The Way

“The Way” was the initial term that Christians used to describe their religion. This term obviously emphasized the teachings of Jesus as a distinctive “way” of living. In Acts, it is reported that they soon started to be called Christians by outsiders. The Christians didn’t seem to object to this, and as the early church increasingly understood and formulated the divinity of Christ and His centrality, the name seemes fitting, even though it was rarely mentioned in scriptures.

Brothers, Children of God

If you look up all the references to brothers and children of God, they seem to exclusively refer to believers. However, it can be easy to recognize the object of these terms, but miss the meaning. If we take these terms to be nothing more than a synonym or replacement for believers, this would seem to suggest that the Bible uses these words as a code word, to obscure the meaning, rather than using the clearer term “believer”. But of course these terms aren’t intended to be obscure, but rather add meaning. So while the object of these words is the believers, the descriptive meaning that these terms add to the reference to believers is to describe a familial, relational connection between believers with each other and with God (which builds our understanding of the Church and the Kingdom). When we see these terms we should recognize that scriptures is pointing us to a relational element (and not just a code word for believers).

Christianity

Again, the term “Christianity” doesn’t appear in scriptures, but I was comparing other words with it, so it seems worthwhile to try to define this as well. Being more colloquially originated, Christianity has come to mean more of the culture of Christians. Christians certainly do have their own sub-culture, with certain language characteristics (Christianese), worldview, ideologies, and traditions. However, not only does the term “Christianity” not really have a Biblical origination, but the sub-culture, like any other sub-culture is often a mix of perspectives and ways, some that are redemptive, and some that are in opposition to Christ’s teaching. Christianity, as a culture, needs to be transformed and redeemed by the Kingdom of God, just like every other culture.

OT Precedent

Perhaps another helpful way of distinguishing between the Kingdom and the Church is to look at their Old Testament precedence. For the Kingdom, the precedence is found in the theocratic kingdom represented by the Davidic line of Kings. The Davidic succession of Kings found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ as the ultimate King of the Kingdom. And their battles they waged, in their partial understanding (Col 1:25-27), are representative of the real battle that was to be revealed.

For the church, finding the precedence might seem a little harder. Conventantal theology sometimes is described as treating the church as a successor to Israel. While I definitely affirm conventantal theology (that there is no distinct spiritual category of people with obligated blessing based on ethnicity, Matt 3:9, which clearly contradicts dispensational teaching), the church as a successor isn’t quite precise. According to Romans 9:6-8, it is the believers, the children of God, that are the true heirs of Israel. It might also be tempting to compare the Church, or at least its ministers, to the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. This is also misguided. The purpose of this priesthood was to act as a mediator between the people and God. The necessity of this function was decimated at the cross, when the veil was torn, and all believers were effectively made priests, with direct access to God. This also means that the associated rituals of the Aaronic priesthood, like animal sacrifices, a temple, and required tithes do not carry forward to the church.

However, finding the precedence of the church in the Old Testament is actually much easier than searching for metaphors. Why? Because the church is actually frequently referenced in the Old Testament. Now, of course, this may sound like a bizarre claim, as you probably have never seen the word “church” in the Old Testament. But, that is because you are reading an English Bible, and an artifact of English translation is the Hebrew equivalent word is traditionally not translated into “church”. However, the Hebrew word that is most equivalent to “church” or “ekklesia” is the Hebrew word “qahal”. And this Hebrew word for church (and it is varying forms, including a verb form) not only is mentioned in the OT, it occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament (and even in the Septuagint, this is typically translated to Ekklesia, and occurs 80 times there). If you want to see the church in the Old Testament, just look for this word, which is typically translated more literally as “assembly”, “congregation”, or in verb form as “gather”. Now, I would certainly affirm that, thanks to Paul’s epistles, the church is much more fully developed in the NT, but it certainly is present and described in the OT.

What does this mean for us?

In response to my first post, a friend asked how (mis)understandings in these things work themselves out (for good or ill) today. This is a great question, and I don’t really have a complete answer. I wrote this post more to try to wrestle with the relationship and responsibility of these different aspects of God at work in His people. As a church leader, I feel it is important that I try to understand this. However, to take a rough stab at how a lack of distinction in these concepts might affect our thinking, I will offer this: I think we have tried a little too hard to make our virtuous efforts be tied to a Christian source. My assertion would be that when we pursue helping the poor, social justice, or evangelism, that there doesn’t need to be a church banner flying overhead, because the church isn’t and doesn’t need to claim direct responsibility. God will be glorified by these actions, (eventually), even if the immediate audience isn’t aware. This may diminish the church in one respect; in terms of our expectation of its direct capabilities. However, I think this (greatly) magnifies the Church in another respect. I like to characterize the role of the Church as a catalyst, and a catalyst can often trigger something that is orders of magnitude greater and larger than the catalyst itself. The Church has, can, and will continue to plant seeds of change that permeate and grow far beyond what the individuals themselves could ever accomplish. Through the Church is a thrilling and amazing potential! Lowly followers of Christ, by gathering to disciple and encourage, have triggered new patterns of living that have rippled through generations and have truly formed and shaped the world we live in today. We can and should legitimately hope to see our gatherings do the same today and tomorrow.

Putting This All Together

If I were to try to weave these together, I think I would say this:
Believers are called to periodically come gather together, like a family, relationally and lovingly, to train, nurture, equip, encourage, and prepare each other for following Christ’s way, that we might live our lives (not only inside, but outside the church) obeying the ways of the Kingdom, showing the way, like a catalyst, for transformation (for all cultures including Christianity) to a new way of living. As we do this, and manifest the Kingdom of God, demonstrating compassionate, merciful, and just ways, we tear down the barriers between ourselves, and draw people to gather together in harmony, a delight to Christ, radiating as His bride, walking in ways that anticipate our future closer union and gathering as relational community with Him.

Scarcity

One of the most important contexts from which we demonstrate our affections, and our love is in the context of scarcity. Scarcity is the reality we all face (in differing levels of course), in making decisions about how to use our finite and limited resources. The decisions we make within this context reveal our true desires and pursuits.

Within Christianity there is tendency to ignore or downplay scarcity, because we serve and can petition a God with unlimited resources (Matt 7:7, John 14:3). However, these verses are caveated by being in accordance with God’s will, rather than our own. This means that these verses are intended to give us hope and comfort of a God who can and will provide for us, but it does not mean that we do not need to make decisions on how to best use the finite resources given to us. We often easily redefine “faith” to be about ignoring scarcity, but in fact, the concept of stewardship as expressed in scriptures (Like 12:48, Matt 25:14-30) is all about making decisions with finite resources. Faith does not ignore our finite resources, it acknowledges them. The reality is that we continually have to make decisions about how to use our time, effort, and money. We buy items, with a limited amount in our bank account. We schedule our time, we have a fixed amount of time each week. We only have so much effort we can expend before we are exhausted.

But, rather than being discouraged by this, we should understand how valuable this situation is in giving us an opportunity to demonstrate our love and affections. Imagine for an instance, if my wife needed a vehicle, but I wanted to buy a fancy sports car for myself. If I had unlimited resources, I could simply buy both. While on the surface, this might seem loving, as I gave my wife what she wanted. But, I really have not demonstrated much, other than I can swipe my unlimited credit card with ease. However, in the context of scarcity, working to meet a loved ones needs takes a new meaning, as we actually make sacrifices of our own wants to help another. From this, love is truly demonstrated. Love is demonstrated by what we are willing to give up, our true affections are proven by what lesser affections are willingly set aside for a greater one.

One of the reasons God took on flesh, as Christ, was to demonstrate living in the scarcity of the human existence. In this, he was able to truly demonstrate and prove his love for us, and demonstrate his true affections. Anyone with the slightest bit of imagination could easily come up with laundry list of things that we would have liked God to do while he was here on earth, if he was acting with unlimited resources. We might wish that we would have setup hospitals on every corner, implemented robots that caught every criminal, and discipled every believer (and don’t think he couldn’t have made robots that are way better disciples than you and I), and put reader boards in the sky proclaiming the gospel. But, as demonstration of his love and affections, he operated with scarce resources (and quite scarce, his carpentry work probably wasn’t that financially lucrative, and he had relatively short time/life to work with). And consequently, by looking at his life, we can see the things that God truly regarded as important and worth pursuing. Where Christ spent his time and energy clearly reveal God’s greatest desires.

This doesn’t mean that we voluntarily choose to be poor. One of our resources is time, and using this finite resource to produce more resources (like money or other good, for the benefit of others, and glory of God), is good stewardship. Our resources are also not bounded, there is no fixed bound on how big of impact we can make with our efforts (there is a critical difference between bounded and finite). Exchanging resources is a key way that we do the most with what we have been given. But ultimately we will still need to decide for who and what purpose we will use what we have.

Our affections are revealed by how we respond to scarcity. We may affirm the goodness and value of many things, but our financial statements reveal what we truly regard as important. And our schedules reveal what we truly care about. We live in a society where people seldom say no to things that they really want, for the sake of something else. But this demonstrates our affections with the greatest of clarity. Our finite-ness gives us the opportunity to unmistakably declare what we value, what we love, and what we prioritize.

The Nature of Christian Persecution

What is the nature of Christian persecution and opposition? Jesus declared that we should expect to face persecution, and throughout history, Christians have often faced different types of oppression and hardships for their. Christians have come to not only expect persecution, but will even find validation in opposition from society. What types of opposition have Christians experienced, what are “good” forms of opposition, and what type of hardships should we reasonably expect and prepare for?

Jesus set the expectation for persecution early on, saying: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”. Jesus went on to encourage and even suggest reward for those who face this persecution.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

First, it is important to remember that persecution or hardship can never alone be used to validate the truth of one’s ways. This is a classic example of the genetic fallacy. Genetic fallacy is when we argue for or against something because of who believes it. A silly example would be saying that Nazi’s drank water, so therefore water is evil. A more serious example, is that Westboro Baptist firmly believe that they are doing the right thing with their ugly protests, and they say the opposition they receive proves it. We must be careful not to fall for genetic fallacy, and assume that since there is opposition that challenges our beliefs, therefore our beliefs must be right. Sometimes we face opposition for our beliefs, because our beliefs are wrong.

However, while recognizing that we can’t use opposition as a solid basis of truth, it is still helpful to recognize what types of patterns of persecution to legitimately expect. We can look for these both in scriptures and in history.

As we look at the verses above, this already gives some narrowing definition to legitimate persecution. Legitimate persecution is tied to who Jesus is and what he represents: righteousness. Certainly the great prototype and example of suffering religious persecution, is Christ Himself. So can we draw from His example?

One of the first things to notice is the source of Jesus’ persecution. The challenges and conflict that led to the cross are a major theme in the gospels. And who is the opposition in this conflict with Jesus? The Pharisees. These were the religious leaders of the day. And these weren’t just any religious leaders, they were, in fact the religious leaders of Jesus’ own religion. They (attempted to) follow the same God that Jesus preached. They were the proto-Judeo-Christian leaders of the day. They were the church leaders. In fact if we look more closely at the major theological division of the day; the resurrection, the Pharisees would even legitimately be categorized as the same denomination as Jesus. Yet these leaders were the major force of opposition and ultimately persecution against Christ. (And I say this as a leader in our church; it is humbling to remember that I am in position which is so prone to being in opposition to Christ).

This story of persecution continues well into Acts, as the early followers of “The Way”, as they called themselves, were thrown and imprisoned and killed. And again, who was the source of these attacks? They were the dominant church/religious institute. The conflicts between the dominant religion and the followers of “The Way” are the main narrative of Acts as they (the disciples) challenge the power structures and traditions of the “church” at the time (the religious organizations).

As Americans, we should recall our history, to be keenly aware of our experience with this. The pilgrims themselves were a group that were persecuted. And who were they being persecuted by? That’s right, again, the Christian leaders and organizational structure of their society. And even within our country Christians spearheaded the oppression of Salem Witch Trials and defended slavery.

Christians have come to expect persecution to come from secular society, but the Biblical narrative and even American’s own history demonstrate that isn’t always the case. They indicate that to follow Jesus is to invite hardship and challenge from Christians and their culture, as much as anyone else. If we are truly follow Christ’s radical and revolutionary call, that turns the natural way of religion upside down, this is as likely to illicit backlash from the Christian culture as anywhere else. The point is that Christ’s teaching are so contrary to our natural ways, that it is a challenge to every culture and sub-culture, whether it be Greek, Jew, American, or even Christian culture.

Now again it is worth remembering that persecution from either side does not validate the truth. You aren’t correct just because you are being opposed by Christians either.

Let’s also consider what types of activities actually lead to persecution. Being persecuted simply for what religion you belong to is actually quite rare. There are indeed cases of it. However, if you study the statistics on Christian persecution, you will see enormous variations in the counts. Why is this? It is because persecution solely due to religious affiliation is extremely rare. But persecution due to religiously inspired or commanded activities is much more common. Categorizing these activities as religious is naturally very difficult and subjective.

Again, this is demonstrated by scriptural accounts as well. They didn’t crucify Jesus because he was a “Christian” or believed in God. In fact, if his only teaching was just that he worshiped YHWH, he would have been welcomed with open arms. Jesus wasn’t crucified simply for being Jesus of Nazareth, or for his religious affiliation. Nor was Jesus even persecuted for laws that he established. In fact, the crime that Jesus was crucified for was clearly stated: sedition, or insurrection.

This points to the fundamental nature of most legitimate persecution in the world. Persecution isn’t usually about religious affiliation. It is not even about what laws the Bible teaches. Persecution is about power. Jesus wasn’t persecuted because he had some good sermons, or for a particular set of rules. He was persecuted because he was subverting the power structures and hierarchy around him. Jesus represented a threat to the order of power that the religious leaders were wielded. Jesus was turning this upside down, creating a kingdom where the first will be last, where the weak are lifted up and the strong are torn down. And this upheaval was not welcome by those at the top of the order.

Of course, Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This was partly due to the Jewish leaders insistence, but their own role was important as well. Jesus immediate challenge to the power structures of the church were most direct, but there was some truth to the threat Jesus played to Romans as well. To be sure, Jesus was very clear in resisting any type of military and violent coup against the Romans. But his followers had indeed switched their alliance. They no longer held to an unassailable alliance to the Roman empire. The Romans certainly didn’t have any physical threat to worry about from the Jesus followers, but to the degree that the Romans hunger for and demanded allegiance, the threat of allegiance to another Kingdom was very real in Christ followers.

And this persecution wasn’t just something that was externally triggered. Christ was on an intentional and committed path of sacrifice. It is on the committed path to sacrifice for others, sacrificing for the subversion of power, for the sake of those in need that real persecution takes place.

Likewise through the history of Christian persecution. It is not those that quietly have a private faith that are persecuted. It is those that are committed to sacrifice that challenge hierarchies of power around them, and choose to stand with the oppressed, that face the greatest threats.

Unfortunately, I feel like we have sometimes forgot this. In our Christian culture talking about persecution has far too easily become a replacement for real sacrifice. We talk about slippery slopes (it is also shocking to me when people explicitly state that they are basing their fears on a logical fallacy, like slippery slope) that will supposedly lead to persecution. This is a convenient replacement for making any real sacrifices.

This slippery slope fallacy is far too common. Many of us have mistaken the path of secularism as moving us towards persecution. But this path is not towards greater interest in (against) religion, but towards disinterest. The secular world is not growing hostile toward religion. It is growing bored with religion. Now this may be a worse fate. It has been said that the opposite of love is indifference. This reality may be hard to swallow, but many people just don’t really care that much about your religion or what laws it includes.

This exaggeration of hardships among Christians is not only out of touch with reality, but I believe it represents a shallow, wimpy Christianity. There are people who are tortured and killed for Christ. Comparing the types of opposition American Christians face with someone has to truly pay for their belief is, to be blunt, pathetic. Not getting your way with legislation and then comparing it to a slippery slope to persecution is nothing but weak and whiny Christianity. Until we have actually bled or been injured for our faith, we have little room for complaint.

Jesus called us to take up our cross (Matt 16:24). This isn’t a passive call, to sit around and worry, and fret, and wait for someone to come persecute you. This is active call, that begins with denying ourselves. Likewise, in our society, sacrifice doesn’t come passively. It comes when we actively and voluntarily give up our time and money for others. Christ-based sacrifice is found when we identify with, help, and give to others that are hurting or oppressed, and challenge the structures and hierarchies that hold them there (Eph 6:12). This is how we follow Christ on the cross.