Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Response to a Response

This post is a response to Jacob's post, which was a response to my post on questions for Calvinists. If you haven't been following the discussion, it all started with this post, in which I criticized something that David Platt said in a sermon about God hating/abhorring sinners. There is a long thread of comments in that post, which then precipitated a follow-up post on biblical hatred, and then a post called How I Read the Bible. Finally, I offered my reasons for criticizing David Platt here. That's a dizzying trail of links, to be sure. But it's been a fun and fruitful discussion. Before you read what I've written here, you should probably have Jacob's post open in another tab, and it might even be beneficial to have my questions post opened in yet another tab. Now to it.

Jacob, thank you for such an insightful and well-written response! I think you've articulated your position expertly.

While I certainly could have characterized Platt's sermon as "pastorally irresponsible", I didn't think that would be sufficient. Moving to the other end of the evangelical spectrum, I spent a great deal of time working through Rob Bell's book Love Wins, which I also thought was pastorally irresponsible, but which deserved a fuller treatment. I felt the same with Platt, since he is so revered by a great number of evangelicals, particularly of the young and conservative persuasion. As I've written elsewhere, I am not in Platt's faith community, but ,because of his celebrity, and through the miracle of modern social media, he is in mine. Obviously, I felt strongly enough about what he said here, combined with the level of his influence within my own congregation, that something more needed to be said.

I addressed this post to Calvinists/Reformed folks because every person who offered a critique/comment/question holds to that framework, insofar as I know. I could only assume that what I wrote rubbed them the wrong way, and that it had something to do with their overarching theological framework. (Or maybe it's just because Calvinists love to argue theology. Admit it. It's true!) My questions arose because two popular Reformed preachers taught that "God hates (abhors) sinners" (David Platt), and "God hates you" (Mark Driscoll). Furthermore, I find that those who hold to a Reformed framework, with the exception of Tim Keller, emphasize God's glory and his holiness, but not his love. Perhaps I haven't read broadly enough. (I'm not saying they don't believe in God's love or talk about it at all; I'm just saying, from an outsider's perspective, it's not something that seems to characterize Calvinist/Reformed teaching.)

Regarding total depravity, perhaps I haven't understood it correctly. Here is my understanding of total depravity: Human beings are utterly and completely sinful from birth, incapable of doing anything good whatsoever, and incapable of choosing to follow God or ever worship him. Perhaps I haven't got that right.

My perspective is that we are originally created in the image of God, that we rebelled and invited sin and death into God's perfect world. Furthermore, the image of God was broken and perverted in us. We are completely incapable of restoring both that image and the relationship we once held with God. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot redeem ourselves. We need God to do that for us.

Maybe I've gotten total depravity wrong, but I know there are some circles that teach that nonChristians are incapable of doing anything good whatsoever. This is clearly false, in my opinion. Now, do those good deeds earn them salvation, or a little bit of God's favor? No. The "good deed" God wants from us is to believe in his Son, and it is only by God's grace, through faith in Jesus, that we are saved. I believe this puts me well into the Reformed camp. Perhaps I have merely rejected a caricature of total depravity, as you say. But the caricature is a reality in many circles.

As for God's hatred and wrath, I have done my best to define the former, at least. I wrote in my post Biblical Hatred, "Hatred is the intense or passionate dislike of someone or something. But the term has deeper connotations in our culture, implying oppression, ridicule, and antagonism." Perhaps I should have also defined wrath, which I take to mean "the eschatological judgment of God unto condemnation." As I understand it, the wrath of God is a picture of the coming judgment of all humanity, and will be poured out upon all who have rejected Jesus. The overwhelming picture from the Scriptures--mostly the prophets and the NT--is that God's wrath is a future event, the only escape from which is to find salvation in Christ himself.

But both Platt & Driscoll used "hate" in the present tense, meaning God hates you (or sinners) right now, in the present. This is not God's coming wrath, as the Prophets and Jesus and the apostles talked about. This is God's present extreme dislike--his open and full antagonism and oppression today. That is what, in the light of the cross and the overwhelming witness of the NT, I simply cannot believe. I believe that God, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, is actively and fully running toward every lost soul in the world, and he is doing it in the person and work of his Son.

To sum up, God's wrath is the eschatological judgment unto condemnation; God's hatred is the present antagonism and passionate dislike of sinners. I affirm the former, but reject the latter.

The conversation between Simeon & Wesley is very appropriate. Truly, Christ is our only hope. But that does not mean we do not have the responsibility to persevere and obey, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit. Surely, at the very least, the book of Hebrews and the seven letters of Revelation affirm this.

Question 1

What role, if any, does the Abrahamic/Davidic covenant play in these expressions in the Psalms. Are the wicked those Israelites who reject YHWH, or would that also include the Gentiles? Are the righteous David and his followers, or is it the covenant people as a whole?

Here, as with Platt, I would argue that you're overlaying a cognitive framework on the Psalms that they were never intended to accomodate. The theology within the Psalms, while true of course, is expressed in extreme terms because the Psalms are written in the language of the heart. To expound them in search of a literal dogma is to miss the point of the Psalms.

For instance, using Platt's exegetical method, I could make the following case, which I believe would be fully "biblical":
Psalm 137:8-9 • Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. If you want to be happy in life, go to Babylon, which is modern day Iraq, and throw some infants off a cliff. Kill as many babies as you can find, and you will be happy--blessed, even. In fact, this verse is proof that God has commanded the United States Army to invade Iraq, and kill as many civilans as possible, especially children. If we want to be happy, we'd better go to war!
Absurd. Offensive. Horrifying. But my method is the same as Platt's. Ahistorical. "Literal". And, quite frankly, ignorant of proper exegetical methods and the differences between varying types of literature found in the Scriptures.

Question 2

I don't think I'm being vague here at all. A sinner is someone who sins. That seems self-evident. But it seems you don't agree with the premise. Fair enough.

I stand by my exegesis of 1 Timothy 1:15. The verb is in the present tense. His past has humbled him in the present. He knows what he's capable of doing and being, and is teaching Timothy to live with that same sense of his own sinfulness in order to remain humble.

Question 3

I would argue that God has not revealed himself analogically, as you say, but directly and personally, in the person of Jesus Christ. We know God, not through a roundabout circuit of analogies, but in the person of the Incarnate Son.
Colossians 1:15 • The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
Colossians 1:19-20 • For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
John 14:9 • Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.
Hebrews 1:2-3 • In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
John 8:19 • If you knew me, you would know my Father also.
2 Corinthians 4:6 • For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
John 1:18 • No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
This is really the crux of it, for me. We most clearly know God through Jesus. Whatever we thought we knew about God through Israel's history and their Scriptures must now be reinterpreted through Jesus Christ, which, of course, was exactly what Jesus and the apostles were doing.

Question 4

This is not sophistry at all. The verse in Romans 9 has been quoted to me on multiple occasions, but I've yet to hear an adequate explanation. I put the verses together like that because it seemed especially relevant to the discussion.

Question 5

I agree! Perhaps my clarification above regarding the terms "hatred" and "wrath" will shed some light on this issue. God's wrath is coming at the eschaton, and all who do not believe/reject Jesus will be eternally condemned. But, in my opinion, that does not mean that God hates us today.


I'll conclude by stating my position as clearly as I can.
  1. God loves humanity with agape love, the love that exists within the Godhead, binding him together in perfect unity.
  2. God will judge sinful/rebellious/unbelieving people.
  3. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to, among other things, spare all humanity from this coming judgment, also known as God's wrath.
  4. God did this because of his great love for humanity, and the cross of Christ is the clearest and most powerful sign of this love.
  5. All who turn to Jesus in faith and repentance will be saved from the coming judgment.
  6. God is actively pursuing all humanity by empowering his people, the Church, with his very Spirit to make disciples of every people group.
  7. Hatred has to do with present opposition and antagonism, not future judgment unto condemnation.
  8. God does not hate any human being.
And there you have it.


Jacob said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond and clarify your positions. Let me begin with some points of agreement:

• It is certainly appropriate to respond to errant teaching by well-known figures who have significance influence on those whom God has placed under your pastoral care.

• Calvinist/Reformed types do often seem to like discussing theology. It is also true that the tone of some of those discussions make me question whether the person has actually come to grips with the very thing for which they're arguing. There's something inconsistent about arguing for the "Doctrines of Grace" in an a way that is entirely prideful and ungracious.

• You indeed haven't read broadly enough in Reformed thought, evidenced by the fact that you're not Reformed. ;-)
(please take this with a smile and in light of my previous comment)

•There are many caricatures of Total Depravity being held and taught as the truth (just as there are caricatures of other Christian doctrines).

• Christians do have a responsibility to persevere and obey, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit.

•God has most clearly revealed himself in and through the person of Jesus and that all Scripture should be read in light of him.

• I can agree with points 1 through 6 of your conclusion, though I suspect we would flesh out the details quite differently.

If I am correct in my exegesis of this discussion, it seems like these are the primary issues in question:

1. Can we distinguish between wrath against sinners and hate when speaking of God? Similarly, is God’s wrath only a future eschatological judgment or is there a sense in which this is present reality?

2. What is the proper interpretation of Psalm 5 (and similar) in light of the revelation of Christ in the NT? This includes the various hermeneutical issues discussed.

3. What is the proper way to understand the love of God and does God love every individual in the same way?

4. What is the nature and extent of humanity’s depravity, and what is the nature and extent of Christ's atonement?

If you agree that the above is the heart and substance of our disagreement, then I’d like to leave aside for the moment the secondary points of disagreement (exegesis of 1 Tim 3:15, analogical vs. univocal language when referring to God, interpretation of Romans 9, etc.) and focus on these.

Let me know if I have framed the issues accurately.


andy said...

I think you've accurately catagorized our points of disagreement. Can you point me to a quality reformed work where I can get a better grasp of the finer points of Calvinism?

Jacob said...

Knowing you have an MDiv from GCTS, I was being facetious in my comment, but I don't think I've ever turned down the opportunity to recommend books. Without knowing what you’ve read, here are some suggestions. E-mail me your mailing address and I’ll send you a Christmas present.

The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel by Boice and Ryken is a good, concise explanation of the “five points of Calvinism.”

A more thorough polemical treatment on some of these issues and the biblical texts would be Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace by Thomas Schreiner, et al.

As I recommended to Erica in response to my previous post, D.A. Carson's short book on the Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is worth the read and is freely available in PDF.

For a taste of the heart and soul of Reformed Theology, I highly recommend:
- Communion with the Triune God by John Owen
- The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes
- God So Loved He Gave by Kelly Kapic

For solid treatments on the Atonement:
- Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray
- The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross by Leon Morris

On the issue of suffering and evil, If God is Good by Randy Alcorn would be my recommendation. Alcorn would consider himself a “four point Calvinist” and his treatment of the issues is excellent.

For Biblical Theologies from a reformed perspective:
- Greg Beale’s most recent New Testament Biblical Theology is simply superb and his approach seems right up your alley.
- Bruce Waltke’s Old Testament Theology is also quite good.

Also, if you haven’t done so, I highly recommend working through Doug Moo’s NICNT commentary on Romans. His exegesis is (IMO) unmatched (although Moo in conversation with Schreiner’s BECNT would be better). As a comparison, N.T. Wright is very good at painting broad sweeping pictures of the text that would sometimes get a little shaky when you actually get down into the nitty gritty of tracking Paul’s argument. On the other hand, Moo is as meticulous an exegete on Romans as I’ve seen, though he always has the big picture in view and he interacts with just about everyone.

And of course, if you haven’t read much of Calvin’s Institutes, I’d definitely recommend spending some time with it (in the McNeill/Battles translation). There’s a different flavor there than you might expect. Or you could check out Piety’s Wisdom by Mark Beach.

If you don’t already know about it, the Columbus Library has a great interlibrary loan system so that even if they don’t have a book in their system they’ll find and retrieve it for you from somewhere else in the country at no charge.

andy said...

I've not read Boice, but Ryken's book The Bible as Literature is outstanding. I've read Schreiner's big book on Paul, but didn't love it. I really like what I've read of Carson, and his commentary on John is outstanding. Though he can be a bit cranky (as can David Wells). I've also read the Morris book you recommend, and I'm very anxious to get my hands on Beale's recent book. Waltke is also very good. I've heard a lot about Moo, and his son was my Greek TA, but I haven't read anything by him.

My GCTS education did provide me with a good bit of reading from Reformed circles, most of which, I should point out, I happily agree with. And we didn't seem to touch on the bits I take issue with too often, which I think is good because they are minor points of theology, in my opinion. But still fun to discuss!