Thursday, December 2, 2010

Moving to Wordpress

Readers, 

The past few days a number of more experienced bloggers have gently harassed me into switching over to wordpress, suggesting it's important if I'm serious about expanding my readership. So,  like the dreaded email switch, the time has come for the dreaded blog switch. The new url is http://carsontclark.wordpress.com/.

If you "Follow" this blogspot or subscribe to its RSS feed, please switch over. There's two options on the new site. You can either sign up for email notifications of new posts or subscribe to the RSS feed. Whatever works best for you. And for those who enjoy interacting with comments, I'm excited about this new site not only because it's an aesthetic improvement but it also seems to have a better discussion platform.  

There's a new post waiting entitled "Miniblog #34: The Anglican Crisis Over Scripture." Once again, thank you.

So long from blogspot,

Carson

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mini Blog #33: One Reason I Love History

Alexander Pope once wrote, "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." That quote has frequently come to mind ever since English Lit II with Dr. Williams. Yesterday it happened again. "Other academic disciplines... that look at human behavior tend to view behavior through the lens of their own disciplines. Economists see economics as primary; sociologists measure social forces; psychologists evaluate the psychological; biologists see humans as living organisms; and so forth," observed George Marsden. "Historians, however, are supposed to look at the interrelationships among the forces that shape human behavior. They have to weigh the relative importance of the economic, social, psychological, biological, physical, political, aesthetic, ethical, and technological factors, as well as many other[s]." That captures how I think and why I so often get frustrated... OK, let's be honest... annoyed with other academics. It's not merely an issue of liking their discipline over all others. Obviously it's good that people have passion for what they do and to like it most; the problem is when they value it more. I loathe the practioners of disciplines who act as though theirs reigns supreme. As far as I'm concerned, no discipline trumps any other. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, areas of clarity and blind spots. They all provide a different perspective but none are of greater importance, which is why I appreciate history's innate recognition that all disciplines are compatible and together provide a clearer understanding of truth. No historian worth her salt can believe her discipline is more valuable than the others. With history that humility comes built-in whereas in other disciplines it (seems as though it) must be cultivated. That's probably what I love most about history.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Primer on Open Theism

Background

There's a precedent at least as far back as 150 years but, about a decade ago, Open Theism created quite the theological squabble. Ground zero was the Twin Cities, where there were two pastor/theologians whose differences highlight the big umbrella policy of not only contemporary evangelicalism but their own denomination. John Piper, pastor of Minneapolis' Bethlehem Baptist, is so Reformed that he's tacked an additional two points onto the historic five. Greg Boyd, pastor of St. Paul's Woodland Hills Church, is an Open Theist who makes folks like Piper long for the good ol' days of the Calvinism-Arminianism war.

The other most well-known Open Theists are John Sanders and the late Clark Pinnock, both of whom faced votes for their expulsion from the Evangelical Theological Society because of this belief. In the end neither lost his membership, which precipitated Norm Geisler tendering his resignation on the grounds that ETS wasn't fundamentalist enough... er.... didn't uphold his view of inerrancy. In retrospect the controversy had the opposite effect as was intended by those wanting the pair ousted. Far from condemning Open Theism, it provided rare empirical backing that self-identifying evangelical theologians consider it, at the very least, a viable option.

Today Open Theism remains controversial, but the dust has pretty well settled. It isn't affirmed by any conservative evangelical I'm aware of, but is held by a growing number espousing to be moderate, progressive, and post-conservative evangelicals.

Content & Perspectives

Depending on who you ask you're going to get a different spin. The crux of the whole thing is that Open Theism is a rejection of the presuppositional foundation of Platonic Greek philosophy, upon which much early christian theology was built. The three-fold reasoning goes something like this:

(Let me preface the next few points by begging for the philosophers' mercy. This ain't my field of expertise. I'm a history guy who only dabbles in philosophy.)
  1. There are abstract forms to which all else that we see and interact with points. These forms are the only ontologically knowable things. So if something is red, its ultimate essence derives from the form "redness." If something is a chair, then its from "chairness."
  2. There's this idea of taking things to their (supposed) logical extreme through linear thought process. So if there's a person who is good and lives a long time, then then god must be best and last forever. Taking things to the Nth degree, so to speak.
  3. In Plato's mind, something to be knowable it must be at least noticeably static.
When you add 'em together the result is that for a being to be god it must be absolute, eternal, immutable, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.

Such apostolic fathers as Justin Martry sought to defend Christianity and make it seem intellectually plausible to the second century Roman aristocracy. Moreover, they argued that the truth of Christianity aligns with truth anywhere and sought to reconcile it with Neo-Platonism, which they held in high regard. Thus, Classical Theism was developed and came to be viewed as an essential core of christian doctrine.

Open Theists, however, claim that the Bible and Neo-Platonism cannot be fully integrated. They assert that Classical Theists have to find... creative... ways around the obvious historico-grammatical interpretation when the OT, in particular, says God repented or changed His mind. Open Theists claim to interpret such texts in a more faithful way to what an original audience would have understood.

Concerning God's foreknowledge, there's a diversity of thought within Open Theism not unlike the variety of views among, say, Dispensationalists' eschatological beliefs. Some Open Theists hold that God chooses not to know the future as a sort of self-restraint, thereby providing true free will. Others say it's much simpler than that. They believe that God doesn't know the future because it's not something that's knowable. It's a rejection of the Doc Brown view where you can hop in a DeLorean and move forward in history because the entire space-time continuum has already been written. In other words, the future cannot be known (even by God) because there is no such thing; it just plain doesn't exist.

Naturally, Classical Theists are none too pleased about all this this. Arminians and, to a greater extent, Calvinists see this as undermining their whole theological system. It's not a mere nuance or shift, by a complete deconstruction and rebuilding of major elements within christian theology. They assert that Open Theism effectively humanizes and even deposes God by painting Him as this weak deity who's in a constant struggle and isn't definitively in control. They argue that the God of Open Theism reflects more a god out of the Greek pantheon than the God of the Bible.

(If this next paragraph confuses you, just ignore it and move on. It's non-essential.)

Now is a good time to distinguish between Process Theology and Open Theism. Perhaps a good analogy would be chess. All agree that God is the game's inventor, but Process Theologians don't think God invented the rules. They believe the rules are continually being developed. Open Theists, on the other hand, think God invented the rules and is the best chess master imaginable, but (some) aren't sure that God will win. Folks like Norman Geisler lump all them together as basically the same thing.

Commentary

As one who approaches all matters of faith first and foremost from the perspective of history, I want to facepalm myself whenever I hear conservative evangelicals claim that their beliefs are rooted within Scripture whereas Open Theism is built upon philosophy. The simple historical fact is that Classical Theism predates Christianity and doesn't stem from Hebrew thought. It's a philosophical system developed as a direct response to the cantankerous deities of the Greek pantheon. As such it's quite foreign to the Ancient Near Eastern thought processes of most the biblical authors, was imported into christian thought by church fathers as they syncretized Christianity with their culture, and has stuck. The practical result is that the ANE God revelaed in the Scriptures has looked awfully dang Greco-Roman ever since.

Unfortunately, most conservative evangelicals have been so conditioned by their worldview that they're completely ignorant of its influence. They cannot see beyond their own cultural perceptions. In the terminology of cultural anthropology, they have an emic (insider's) perspective and are unable to even consider an etic (outsider's) perspective. I cannot help but marvel at the irony. They knowingly filter their interpretations of Scripture through the lens of Greek philosophy even as they claim to place the Bible above philosophy. It's like writing an essay about how you reject the alphabet.

Platonism was developed in response to the Greek pantheon, it became Classical Theism as it was integrated into Christianity, and anyone who rejects Classical Theism is said to believe in a God resembling a deity out of the Greek pantheon. Seems we've come full circle, doesn't it? As ludicrous as this sounds, allow me to suggest that there just might be more than two options. (All the binary thinkers just revolted while the others rejoiced.)

Personally, I think christian theology's second century Hellenization is a tragedy. As one author put it, "Yeshua's teachings, which supposedly form the basis for Western Christianity, are now filtered through 2000 years of traditions born in ignorance of the land, language, and culture of the Bible." That's why I'm willing to reconsider the doctrine of God's omniscience. Specifically, His divine foreknowledge. I'm not, however, willing to toss my hat in with the Open Theists.

Most Christians don't realize that the vast majority of biblical prophecy has little to do with foreknowledge and everything to do with "forthknowledge," as a professor of mine used to say. Nevertheless, there are some clear examples of foreknowledge in Scripture. I think about Genesis 3:14-15 and Jesus' crucifixion, as well as Mark 13:2 and the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Such passages are why I cannot embrace Open Theism in general or Sanders' "probalistic prophecy" specifically, which says that it is possible, however unlikely, that prophecy will not come to pass. I do think God has some sort of foreknowledge, although I have no idea what limitations, whether internal or external, there might be.

In my opinion, too many of these divine sovereignty and human responsibility arguments are shallow. They bounce around on hot button, surface level issues. Rarely do the participants get down to that core question, which is this: Who is God? If one's presupposition of God's essence align with Classical Theism, then by definition God must have foreknowledge of everything and that's the end of the discussion. But if one is willing to explore an etic perspective by seeking to get into the mind of the ancient biblical authors (as best we can, anyway), then questions about the nature and extent of God's foreknowledge are fair game.

Imploration

Though many of my blog posts explore controversial subjects and I put my perspective out there in a forthright manner, I make a concerted effort to encourage civil dialogue. Yet there comes a time when doing the right thing involves getting pissed and calling people out. This post on Open Theism wouldn't be complete without me doing this.

Quite frankly, many conservative to fundamentalist evangelicals--theologians, pastors, etc.--have behaved like complete assholes. Usually the complaint about academics is that they care more about truth than people, more about stroking their intellectual pride than fostering understanding. This group has managed to neglect both their heads and their hearts in their defense of their perspective on the truth. To quote Lord Vader, "Impressive. Most impressive." Not only do they oversimplify complex issues, they've also almost wholly thrown love, humility, grace, compassion, and civility to the wind. Apparently they missed the memo that orthopraxy (right living) is as important as orthodoxy (right doctrine), according to James. And speaking of orthodoxy, Open Theism isn't a freaking heresy! Every Open Theist I know and have read explicitly embraces each doctrine compromising historic orthodoxy as defined by the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds.

I don't mind disagreement. In fact, I value it because of the principle of iron sharpening iron. But will ya conservative blowhards please stop the Inquisition? All I'm asking is that ya settle down a bit, commit to simply understanding where Open Theists are coming from, and treat them like brothers and sisters in Christ... i.e. behave like Christians. Call me crazy, but I don't think that's too much to ask. Oh, and if I hear just one more person say they reject Open Theism because they're "Bible-believing" Christians, well, I just might snap. Jesus ain't Greek and Plato ain't the Messiah, folks.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mini Blog #32: Emic & Etic Perspectives

Cultural anthropologists distinguish between emic (insider's) and etic (outsider's) perspectives. An example from pop culture would be Lynyrd Skynyrd's emic praise of their home state, which was written in response to Neil Young's etic songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama" about the lingering racism in the post-Civil Rights South. Perhaps more than any other concepts, these have hugely impacted my life the past few years. Being aware of my emic perspective has, I hope and pray, encouraged a dual commitment to intellectual humility and rigor by illuminating the existence of alternative views, facilitating an awareness of my limited perspective, helping identify my presuppositions, and challenging those notions in the pursuit of truth. It's tremendously impacted my life across the board, including my marriage, relationships with family and friends, interaction with co-workers, academic interests, political beliefs, personal faith, and so on. In fact, most of my metaphorical "light bulb" experiences now stem from this concept. The most recent occurrence came when I was reading a theologian who noted that Eastern Christendom has long focused (more) around Jesus' incarnational birth whereas Western Christendom has emphasized His death and resurrection. No doubt that's painfully obvious to anyone from a Protestant or Catholic background who's dabbled in Orthodox theology and practice, but it struck me like a ton of bricks. I was completely unaware that my whole perception of Christianity had been conditioned in that way. (In the interest of fairness, most Eastern Christians probably aren't aware of their own conditioning in the other direction.) Ever since I've been trying to figure out how I might glean and integrate elements of the Eastern view for a more well-rounded, incarnational faith. Anyway, my larger point in writing is to encourage others to explore these concepts, to say, "Thank you!" to Dr. Penland, and point out that it was probably the single most influential course I took in college. I'd encourage anyone back at TFC who might read this to take Cultural Anthropology.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Mystery of Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility: Brief Thoughts on Grudem, Kermit the Frog, Pinnock, Yancey & Theatre

"Our words, our steps, our movements, our hearts, and our abilities are all from the Lord," writes Wayne Grudem in his book, Systematic Theology. In other words, he holds to God's complete sovereignty--the belief that God exercises complete causal control over everything. Despite the lengths to which he goes to affirm human responsibility, the problem remains that this position either eliminates man's moral responsibility for sin or creates a God that is completely enigmatic. In anticipation of this criticism, Grudem responds, "[W]e must remember that… Scripture nowhere shows God as directly doing anything evil, but rather as bringing about evil deeds through the willing actions of moral creatures." Is it just me or does this reasoning sound like an attempt at creating a divine loophole whereby God transfers culpability to the puppet while retaining his role as puppet master? It's like saying Jim Henson wouldn't be responsible if Kermit the Frog committed murder. When pressed Grudem undercuts such criticisms with a convenient appeal to the mystery of God's wisdom. I cannot help but think, 'Mystery? What mystery? In his conception, mystery was razed by his pronouncement that God controls everything.' The late Clark Pinnock captured my sentiments well when he wrote, "To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come knowing all the while that they cannot possible do so--such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense."

While written from the perspective of a journalist rather than a theologian, I appreciate the way Philip Yancey described God's interaction with man in The Bible Jesus Read. He observes, "One who reads [the Bible] encounters not an impassible, distant deity but an actual Person, a God as passionate as any person you have met. God feels delight, and frustration, and anger. He weeps and moans with pain. Again and again God is shocked by the behavior of human beings... behavior that, God says, 'I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.'" Somehow this God has sovereignly guided all of history without coercing it. What I cannot figure out is how He knows the coming plot without having dictated the actors' actions and dialogue; that is, from my perspective the true mystery is how God built the set, produced the storyboard, served as the director, trained the actors, and even took on the leading role Himself, yet has been able to retain true improv, if you will.