The Epistle to James and How to Sort Yourself Out

Sort yourself out

I’ve been doing Sunday school lessons on the book of James for weeks. It’s been challenging and enriching. I’ve also been listening to Jordan Peterson’s lectures for the last year or so. And in them he uses the phrase “sort yourself out” frequently. One morning, I decided I would read the book of James through the lens of “sorting yourself out.” Let’s define sorting yourself out as something like this: looking at the parts of your life that are preventing you from being what you know or at least think you should be and reordering them to pursue that good efficiently. So to sort yourself out might mean to stop buying videogames on steam sales that you’ll never have time to play when you know you need to pay off student loans or buy groceries. Or it might mean to submit your desire to get the last word in a fight for the goal of peaceable relationships.

Dr. Peterson never said this exactly, but he did, roughly speaking say something along those lines. That, I would say, is a good supposition.

 

Here’s what I found:

  1. Own your trials (James 1:2-4 and 1:13-15)
  2. Pray for wisdom before rescue (James 1:5-8 and James 5:13)
    James says to pray in the midst of trials for wisdom. This is powerful because our first instinct is to pray for difficult times to end. And James does endorse this notion at the end of the book. But it seems that prior to praying for God to miracle us out of a rough patch, James says to pray for wisdom. This is connected, I think, to two things. One is that most of us know what will solve our problems because we’ve heard wisdom and we have a conscience. And so, to ask for it from God reorders our minds to make us perceptive to what might already be present in us. But also, we’re asking God to give us genuine insight that we may not currently have to solve the problems that we’re facing. This is directly connected to owning our trials. James also says that if you ask insincerely or with a double mind, you won’t get wisdom. What does this mean? It means that if you ask for help out of your trial without a willingness to perhaps let go of the parts of your life that are causing you problems, you will not benefit from the prayer.
  3. Submit to the highest good you can imagine (James 1:17 and James 4:7)
    Saint Anselm defined God as the being which is the highest being that could be conceived. And so, whatever the highest ideal we have in our minds is, that is, subjectively speaking, our God. And then God is, objectively infinitely more true, good, and beautiful than that. And so James is saying that God is the source of all goodness and to submit yourself to God. Many of us willingly do things in a manner that does not reflect God himself or his goodness and even more so, we do not even do things in a manner that reflects our own highest conception of the good. And James says that we need to get that straight.
  4. Judge yourself, then act (James 1:21-25, James 2:14-26, and James 3:13-18)
    James then tells us that God’s moral law, contained in Scripture, is the standard by which we must judge ourselves just as we judge ourselves in a mirror. This reflection upon Scripture is meant to give us a picture of how shabby we are morally so that we can shave, shower, comb our hair, and straighten out our clothes. It’s not enough to believe that God’s law is good. And it’s actually worse to believe God’s law and use it to simply judge how bad others are. Instead we have to believe God and do what he says is best, and “it will be accounted” as righteousness to us. James also paints a picture of the worst possible version of yourself and the best possible version of yourself in 3:13-18. The idea is to simultaneously give you a future so horrifying that you run from it like hell, literally, and a future so beautiful and enthralling that you seek it like a river of pleasures and heavenly joy (Psalm 36:8 and Psalm 46:4).
  5. Let Jesus define your vision of glory (James 2:1)
    James briefly mentions that Jesus is the Lord of Glory. For Christians and maybe for any non-Christian in Western Civilization, it’s deeply important that we fully imbibe the story of Jesus in its details, broad strokes, and multiple layers of meaning. And James is telling the early Christians that the Christian faith is a faith that doesn’t reject the concept of glory, but a faith that defines glory as “whatever Jesus is.” Learning to see Jesus as the wise Lord with true teachings, the prototype of perfect humanity, an archetypal figure whose journey through chaos can be a picture of our own, the lamb who takes away the sins of the world, the second person of the Godhead, the way the truth and the life, the resurrected master of the cosmos, and so-on goes a long way in our efforts to sort out our lives.
  6. Start with the little things: the tongue (James 3:2)
    James says that getting our lives together requires taking control of what we say. But the claim seems to be but one expression of a deeper Biblical truth, that if we’re faithful in small matters, God will see to it that we have authority in larger ones (Luke 16:10). The idea is that if you can take responsibility for your tongue, then you’ll learn to control the other habits of your body. Similarly, if you can clean your room or your car, then maybe you’ll start having a better picture of how to clean your heart or your relationships at work or in your home.
  7. Let sorrow make you good (James 4:8-9)
    Sometimes, our circumstances cause us deep deep sorrow. James helps us to see the value of sorrow by encouraging it, despite the fact that earlier in the letter he commends joy in the most trying of times. How can both be true? First, many of our sorrows are our own fault. Not all, but many. If we look to them and weep as he suggests, then we may have insight into what we need to do to cleanse our hearts. Cleansing your heart, is a biblical way of saying, “Sort yourself out.” Second, sometimes our joy is false and we can only learn that we should be sad if we draw near to God and discover how tattered we are due to sins to which we’ve made a commitment which rivals our commitment to God.
  8. Virtue outlasts your achievements (James 2:5, James 4:14, and James 1:9-11)
    The highest form of success we can have is to be virtuous when we die. This idea is stoic but it’s also Biblical. Happiness as a state of life includes more than mere virtue, as the Bible speaks of a life with more goods than mere virtue (see Proverbs). But you cannot always control your possessions, family, and local economy, but you can control your actions.
  9. Resist the devil daily (James 4:7)
    Assume that Satan is the god of the earth (2 Corinthians 4:4). This means that our culture, which shapes our desires, is probably filled with bad ideas, bad habits, false knowledge, counterfeit gospels, and fake news. Not only so, but you’re a product of your culture. So, you’re full of those things, too. So to resist the devil is to resist (or re-aim) the darkest parts of yourself toward the good and to resist the temptations of civilization to stifle truth telling, creativity, love, service, or moral purity. And the devil, in the senses above is without and within. Good luck.
  10. Sacrifice your plans to God (James 4:13-15)
    The Bible is pro-planning. But it’s against holding on to plans in an arrogant way. James says to say, “if God wills we will do ‘this or that.’” The idea isn’t to superstitiously say that. In James, the word “say” reflects your intentions. And so what James is getting at is that at any moment, our best plans for the future must be subject to revision based on our understanding of the will of God. The Old Testament sacrifices are a good metaphor for this. You might have a prized lamb and it is the best possible thing your crops produce, but instead of basing your whole life on that, you must be willing, should the need arise, to sacrifice it to God. In doing this you can sort yourself out when it comes to your competent plans for the future and the level of frustration you’re willing to experience if those plans betray you.
  11. Humble yourself if you want honor (James 4:6 and James 4:10)
    Most people want honor, but few even consider that you might receive honor from the highest possible good (God). And yet, this is precisely what James says. And if we make honor itself the highest good, we’ll find ourselves doing things we regret deeply because we’ll do what the world around us tells us to do without reference to conscience, the truth, or our own intuition.[1] But if instead we think in terms of a covenant or contract with God wherein he promises to make those who humble themselves great by his standards, then we’re not constrained by culture except in the sense Paul talks about in Romans when he said to think about “what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17).
  12. Learn to save a brother without judging (James 4:11-12 and James 5:19-20)
    James also tells us that our social lives need sorting. And of course, that’s included in he says about the tongue, doing the will of God, planning our future, and judging ourselves. But a large part of it is learning to avoid having a condemnatory attitude toward others. I think that this is done by seeing ourselves as in need of judging first. This is a principle James outlines in chapters one and two. And Jesus certainly says as much in Matthew 7:1-5. But after judging ourselves and seeing the depth of darkness in our own hearts, we are now competent to observe the evil in others. And if we see it we can guard against evil people, which James talks about in James 2:6-7 and James 5:1-6. But we also have the power to gently correct those who are sinning. And I think we can do this by talking about our own struggle with sin and what was necessary to overcome. But we can also do it by warning as sternly or gently as circumstances warrant from the position of loving family rather than condemning judge.

I frequently feel the need to finish a sermon with “so there” or “take that.” Instead I’ll just say, “any thoughts?”

Footnote

[1] An interesting thing that I really need to think about for a long time is the relationship between conscience, the sinful/deceitful heart in Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and the usefulness of personal intuition and the contributions of our unique personality to our calling.

Sick with sin: is the ‘sin as sickness’ model true or helpful?

It is frequent in Christian circles to speak of sin as a deadly illness or sickness from which we need God’s help, healing, and deliverance. 

The Bible is not unfamiliar with this concept. For instance, sin and righteousness are often conceived of in terms of pure and impure. And pure and impure are often connected to leprosy and other diseases of the body. 

So it’s not unreasonable to think of sin in terms of illness or disease. But, as I’ve read some of Thomas Szasz‘s work on the “illness model” of psychiatric disorders, I’ve had to rethink things a bit. He argues that viewing observable behaviors primarily as illnesses creates several philosophical, legal and practical treatment problems in his own field, psychiatry (Szasz):

  1. Mental illness is a medical metaphor for persistent disturbing behavior.
  2. But it’s not medical in itself insofar as mental illnesses cannot be found on the coroners’ table, in blood tests, microscope slides, or even in brain scans. 
  3. Doctor declarations of incompetence make people’s non-illegal behavior into ‘diseases’ that allow them to be institutionalized by government power only to be released upon their recovery. 
  4. Outside of drug use, psychiatry uses conversational methods of healing more similar to philosophy, education, or religion. 
  5. Identifying too closely with one’s illness can lead to finding excuses for negative behavior as though it were something for which one cannot take responsibility, but are viewed by the patient as endemic to their person. 

That summary of Szasz’s book is too simple, but I think it’s good enough for my purposes here. You don’t have to agree with any aspect of the argument with respect to the fields of psychiatry or psychology. But what is useful is the parallel to the way we speak of sin.

Usually the Bible speaks of sin in terms of human failure to pursue the good (accidentally and on purpose). And most of the time that failure is precisely spoken of in terms of rebellion against the good (on purpose). The exception to this might be Romans 6-8 where sin is conceived of as a sort of cosmic power which has extreme influence upon the human person by nature of the habits they have appropriated into their bodies. 

My read on things is that seeing sin as a disease is useful insofar as we’re speaking of having a problem that cannot be solved solely by the person who has it and if we perceive as a disease for which the patient is still responsible for following doctor’s orders. And Jesus’ orders are to deny yourself, sin no more, seek first the kingdom of God, cut off that which causes you to stumble, and so-on.

But I think that seeing sin as a disease has a few disadvantages, as it distances us from sorry for our misdeeds (they’re just a state I am in), it removes notion of rebellion for which we deserve punishment from the equation, and while it could help us see the need to incrementally change our habits, it tends to decrease the importance of individual sins in the psychic radar of our minds. 

So, is sin a disease? No. Disease is one metaphor among many, but it is perhaps best to define sin the way John does, ‘sin is lawlessness.’ In other words, sin is any deed which goes against God’s law or any habit of being which disregards it altogether. If we see sin as a crime I think there is a much more urgent inner need to repent.

References

Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness. Perential, 1974.

Trinity Sunday: Wesley on the Trinity

Today I taught a brief Sunday school lesson on the doctrine of the Trinity. It got me to thinking about this sermon by Wesley: On The Trinity. Here are some selections and my annotations:

Hence, we cannot but infer, that there are ten thousand mistakes which may consist with real religion; with regard to which every candid, considerate man will think and let think. But there are some truths more important than others. It seems there are some which are of deep importance. I do not term them fundamental truths; because that is an ambiguous word: And hence there have been so many warm disputes about the number of fundamentals. But surely there are some which it nearly concerns us to know, as having a close connexion with vital religion. And doubtless we may rank among these that contained in the words above cited: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.[1]

Wesley acknowledges that one may make many errors with regard to religious ideas and still be a Christian. But in this very paragraph, he does go on to say that one must still believe some version of the doctrine of the Trinity to be a Christian. The bold passage of Scripture above is a problematic textual problem, Wesley deals with this later on in the sermon, but for out purposes, it will suffice to say that the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity Wesley will later explicate are contained in Scripture.

I do not mean that it is of importance to believe this or that explication of these words. I know not that any well-judging man would attempt to explain them at all. One of the best tracts which that great man, Dean Swift, ever wrote, was his Sermon upon the Trinity. Herein he shows, that all who endeavoured to explain it at all, have utterly lost their way; have, above all other persons, hurt the cause which they intended to promote; having only, as Job speaks, “darkened counsel by words without knowledge.”[2]

I agree with the essence of this. That the Bible teaches the basic tenets of the doctrine of the Trinity is a case easily made depending on what one means. But the cases for some theoretical framework of the doctrine are problematic and confusing at best.

I dare not insist upon any one’s using the word Trinity, or Person. I use them myself without any scruple, because I know of none better: But if any man has any scruple concerning them, who shall constrain him to use them? I cannot: Much less would I burn a man alive, and that with moist, green wood, for saying, “Though I believe the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God; yet I scruple using the words Trinity and Persons, because I do not find those terms in the Bible.” These are the words which merciful John Calvin cites as wrote by Servetus in a letter to himself. I would insist only on the direct words, unexplained, just as they lie in the text: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one.”[3]

Wesley pulls no punches here in his criticism of Calvin burning Servetus. I agree with Wesley’s willingness to use the words Trinity and Person in expressing his understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. But I’m unwilling to insist that others grasp those concepts of assent to that terminology to call themselves or to be called Christians.

“[A]s strange as it may seem, in requiring you to believe, “there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: And these three are one;” you are not required to believe any mystery. Nay, that great and good man, Dr. Peter Browne, some time Bishop of Cork, has proved at large that the Bible does not require you to believe any mystery at all. The Bible barely requires you to believe such facts; not the manner of them. Now the mystery does not lie in the fact, but altogether in the manner.
For instance: “God said, Let there be light: And there was light.” I believe it: I believe the plain fact: There is no mystery at all in this. The mystery lies in the manner of it. But of this I believe nothing at all; nor does God require it of me.
Again: “The Word was made flesh.” I believe this fact also. There is no mystery in it; but as to the manner how he was made flesh, wherein the mystery lies, I know nothing about it; I believe nothing about it: It is no more the object of my faith, than it is of my understanding.[4]

Again, the Bible never says to believe anything about the manner in which Trinity exists, but only that Father, Son, and Spirit are divine, distinct, and one. In other words, the point is not, in any manner of speaking, to get us to figure out the manner of God’s existence in this respect, but to reveal enough of God as to inspire us to live for Christ and worship rightly.

Not that every Christian believer adverts to this; perhaps, at first, not one in twenty: But if you ask any of them a few questions, you will easily find it is implied in what he believes.[5]

Not every Christian, especially new Christians, explicitly will hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, but you can ask them questions long enough to discover that they implicitly accept the doctrine. Earlier and then later in the sermon (not quoted above) Wesley observes that some through invincible ignorance or involuntary rejection (through misunderstanding of Scripture, the doctrine, or personal confusion) who reject the basic tenets of the Trinity will still be saved. This seems reasonable. In my mind, it’s an open question as to whether or not the basic tenets of the gospel imply the Trinity so clearly that any Christian implicitly believes the doctrine. I will say that anybody who believes in God implicitly believes in the Triune God as the only God (if the doctrine of the Trinity is true). But do all who believe the gospel even know that the Holy Spirit is anything other than their own emotions due to poor instruction or that God is uncreated? I mean, the “who made God” question of the atheists confused so many genuine Christians who just had no knowledge, might many true Christians have such little knowledge of Scripture as to have no set of beliefs which imply the Trinity? I would say, “Yes.” That seems to be obvious. But that doesn’t make the doctrine less true, less essential (in terms of definitive of historic Christian orthodoxy), or less helpful for those who understand it.

References

[1] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200, “Here are the arguments Wesley marshals in favor of this often excluded passage from 1 John:  “(1.) That though it is wanting in many copies, yet it is found in more; and those copies of the greatest authority:—(2.) That it is cited by a whole gain of ancient writers, from the time of St. John to that of Constantine. This argument is conclusive: For they could not have cited it, had it not then been in the sacred canon:—(3.) That we can easily account for its being, after that time, wanting in many copies, when we remember that Constantine’s successor was a zealous Arian, who used every means to promote his bad cause, to spread Arianism throughout the empire; in particular the erasing this text out of as many copies as fell into his hands.””

[2] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200.

[3] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 200–201.

[4] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 204.

[5] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 6 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 205.

The Creation Narrative and Human Excellence

Here’s a repost from my old blog:

Before we go on, below is the story of the creation of man in Genesis 1. Go ahead and read it in full as a refresher.

Gen 1:26-31 ESV Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (27) So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (28) And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (29) And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. (30) And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (31) And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

When we read the Bible, it’s important to remember that the stories, while not always portraying morality or exemplary character, are meant to train us in good works. The stories try to give a picture of the good life as well as the internal and external threats to it. By the time the Old Testament as a whole became known as “the law and prophets” four virtues were recognized as paramount for a life of human excellence and character: courage, justice, temperance, and prudence (see Wisdom of Solomon 8:7).[1]

 

In Genesis 1:26-31 one can easily see how these four virtues must be developed for humanity to fulfill its calling on the earth:

  1. Justice:
    Fundamental to man’s relationship with the world in the passage is that humanity is the likeness of God to the world. In other words, man represents God’s rule over the heavens and the earth in relationship to the other living creatures upon the earth. For this hierarchical order to be expressed, obligations must be met. If human beings are to rule the lesser creatures in God’s stead and presumably relate to other people who do the same, then they must treat one another with justice (fairness, non-aggression, etc). They must also show God his due as the highest member of the chain of being.
  2. Courage:
    Courage is required because, at this point in the story, there is no idyllic garden (that’s in a different version of the creation story a few paragraphs later. There is, instead, a creation full of wild animals and plants that need naming, taming, and understanding. There is also a frightening world full of hostile climates and dangerous geography. And if you think in terms of modern cosmology, there is a universe full of dangerous things that will heartlessly destroy you: stars, space, comets, debris, the sun, and so-on. Man must risk greatly in order to accomplish great deeds.
  3. Temperance:
    Man, if he is to subdue the animals and plant kingdoms, also must subdue himself. The human body is of the animal kingdom. So, man must subdue his mind and body and bring them into a right relationship with God and God’s justice. There are poison berries, cold winters, and people with whom to share and none of these situations can be handled without self-control. This, by the way, is why I tell Christians today that unless it is impossible, they really must do physical exercise. Controlling the body takes work and we walk less, work with our hands less, and go outside less than any previous generation of human beings.
  4. Prudence:
    This is the virtue of understanding the world, discerning good from bad, and acting accordingly. It’s a hard virtue, Hebrews 5 says that it can only be developed by practice. Incidentally, the Genesis 3 fall story is so sad because by refusing to eat from the tree designated off limits, man was learning prudence. Nevertheless, this virtue would have been crucial. To subdue the animals and plants they must be understood, placed into categories, and studied. The same is true of plants. To learn to traverse water, make music, cook, and store food all would require prudence.

In short, one can see how the four cardinal virtue are necessarily a part of man’s vocation as man. They must be developed if one is to have the highest experience of humanity in creation.

References

[1] The case has been made by David Oderberg that these four virtues really do constitute the four pillars of human excellence in a definitive way. David S. Oderberg, “On the Cardinality of the Cardinal Virtues,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 7, no. 3 (October 1999): 305–322.

 

Book Review: The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers by Eleonore Stump

The Book
Stump, Eleonore. The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 2016.

Stump’s volume The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers deals with a question that has vexed many for centuries: is the God argued for by philosophical theologians the same being in the pages of Scripture. Atheists will often answer: no. Some Calvinists also answer: no. And open theists frequently say no.

The Problem

It’s important when claiming that a contradiction exists between assertions to understand the meaning of the assertions. The three apparently contradictory assertions are:

  1. The God of the Bible is personal, dynamic, responsive, and active.
  2. The God of the philosophers is being itself (not a being and not a person), uncaused, and timeless.
  3. The God of the Bible is the God of the Philosophers.
Stump solves the problem with Aquinas

Stump uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most widely read philosophical theist but also a prolific Bible commentator to show that these three assertions can be reconciled and that, indeed, it’s the understanding of God’s simplicity and eternity that can make sense of the Bible’s picture of God.

Her main picture of this is the book of Jonah. She observes that if the classical picture of God as the uncasued cause is true, it is difficult for many to see how the picture of God in Jonah could also be true. The Lord responds to Jonah’s prayers, changes his mind, has conversations with Jonah, and so-on. She responds to these charges by explaining Aquinas’ doctrines of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian, God’s eternity, God’s immutability, and God’s simplicity.

Holy Spirit

For Stump it’s important to acknowledge that Aquinas believes in the Trinity as well as God’s eternity, immutability, and simplicity. What this means then is that Aquinas believes that the Holy Spirit is eternal, immutable, and simple. Aquinas taught that the Holy Spirit and the person of faith are in a relationship “close enough and intimate enough to be thought of as a uniting in love (49).”

After this she observes that one solution to the apparent inconsistence is to suppose that there are “two Aquinases.” But she points out that Aquinas’ writings don’t hold up to the charge of that he is guilty of “so great an inconsistency (55).”

So for Aquinas, the closeness of the Holy Spirit to the believer in time and the deity of the Holy Spirit indicate that he saw the personal God of Scripture and the God of the philosophers as one and the same being.

If in Aquinas’ view the Holy Spirit can have close personal, responsive relationships with human beings in time, what explanation of the attributes of God (immutability, eternity, and simplicity) make sense of this?

Eternity

Here, Stump argues that “nothing about God’s eternal knowledge of future events rules out human free will…(70).” Her argument is against the idea that God’s eternity (persistent timeless existence) precludes any coherent notion of God’s interaction with beings in time. She utilizes an argument from analogy using one of my favorite books, Flatland, to show how it is possible for time to be present to God all at once (62-63). I’ll leave it to her to explain it to you in the book.

She also uses the psychological concept of “shared attention” to explain what it might mean for God to be personally present with individual persons while being eternal in nature (71). God can also answer prayer “because of prayers” without answering them after the prayers or based on foreknowledge. I found that argument satisfying.

Immutability

Immutability is the doctrine that God does not change or is not caused to change. Stump shows how Aquinas’ understanding of this doctrine does not mean that God cannot respond to prayer or respond to different circumstances in time. Her analogy is that God can at time one (t1) tell Jonah that he will destroy the Ninevites in 40 days from (t1)  and 40 days from then (t2) keep them from destruction upon their repentance in one simultaneous (because of God’s eternal nature), complex (because the results are experienced in time by us) act of will (76).

Simplicity

The notion of God’s simplicity is, at its base, the idea that God is being. Or, as my friends and I concluded in high school, “God doesn’t just exist, God is existence itself.” Now, weirdly, my debate team friends and I didn’t find a problem between saying, “God is existence” and “God exists.” But many philosophers, for good reasons, find those two statements contradictory. One, for instance, is that if God is God’s own nature, it appears incoherent to claim that God can choose between “x” and “not-x.” Why? Because God cannot do other than what God does because God is God’s nature. Stump argues that Aquinas’ understanding of the intellect as always active allows for the idea that God can act because of knowledge which God comes to actively without being acted upon (thus being passive).

Implications

Stump’s reflections on the implications are really quite good. I’ll leave you with a few sentences:

  1. If God is eternal, then God’s having assumed human nature is not something characteristic of God at some times but not at others. It is something characteristic of God always. (100)
  2. The person who wept over Lazarus was God-God in his human nature but still God. And the grief that gave vent to those tears is also always present to God. If it were not so, there would be succession in God; and then God would be temporal and not eternal. (101)
  3. Perhaps more importantly, it [the doctrine of divine simplicity] provides a metaphysical grounding for an objective ethics because it can ground morality in God’s nature, as distinct from God’s will. (101)

Conclusion

The book was brief, pleasant, cogent, and helpful. I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to understand Aquinas, the relationship of philosophy to theology, or who wants to reflect upon God’s relationship to time.

Headship and Submission in Marriage

The Glass of Wine – Jan Vemeer I have no idea if they’re married or not, but this picture always struck me as a relaxing vision of an evening in the good life.

A friend recently asked about this topic, so I thought I’d give a sketch of my thoughts. I won’t be citing any sources, but hopefully what I cite as evidence is either self-evident or easily obtainable.

The basic question is this:

What does is mean to submit to your husband as the head of the household in the Bible?

Put more theologically:

Does being a Christian mean that a woman loses her autonomy to her husband?

And here is the question with a twist toward defending the faith:

If male/female equality is true and the Bible teaches husband/wife hierarchy, does that mean the Bible is wrong?

So there are three layers of discussion here:

  1. What does the New Testament actually teach about husband/wife relationships?
  2. What does it mean to be a Christian?
  3. Is the biblical picture of a well functioning marriage true/workable today?

Question 1: What does the NT actually teach about husband/wife relationships?

If somebody asked me, “does the Bible say wives should submit to their husbands,” my straight forward answer would be, “Yes.” If they said, “What do you think that means?” I’d say, “She should respect him, in public and private.”

If I were asked to give further explanation, I’d elaborate like this.

For the sake of argument, let us assume we’re talking about married Christians who aren’t having significant problems worthy or counseling or legal intervention (being physically assaulted is a problem for police and the legal system, the church can excommunicate an abusive spouse but can do relatively little to get them out of your life).

First, the Bible is clear about the core behavioral principle of Christians toward each other:

“Love one another even as I [Jesus] have loved you. ” (John 13:34)

“Whatever you wish others would do for you, you do unto them.” (Matthew 7:13)

The first principle of all relationships between Christians is love for one another because the first aim for the Christian is to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt 6:33).

The second principle for understanding the Christian instructions regarding husbands and wives is that the household was seen as a microcosm of society in the ancient world, as such a household was in competition with other households for prestige and resources and all human societies had a leader or, as the Bible says, “head.” This is just how things were conceived, or at least how they were written about. For instance, in Ephesians 1:22-23, Jesus is the head of the church and all spiritual reality. And so families/households had a head, the husband.

For the husband to be the head of household usually means four things:

  1. He is the provider for the family.
  2. He is the protector of the family.
  3. He is the representative of the family’s needs in the broader society. (this fits well with the previous two)
  4. He is the de facto leader of the group.

Now, in the case of Jesus Christ and his church, submitting to him as the head of the church means obedience, worship, and persistent deference to his will. In the case of Christian marriage it means what you might see in Proverbs 31. The woman there submits to her husband’s headship by ensuring that the well being his household is achieved:

  1. she cares for his health
  2. she raises their children
  3. she manages the in-house financials
  4. she uses her resources to improve the financial situation of the house in the market
  5. she seeks to maintain the honor of the household among the neighboring families.

In other words, to submit to your husband is to promote his interests and those of the family generally. Paul puts it this way: “…let each wife respect her husband.” In other words, submission isn’t a matter of obedience as it is toward Christ. Instead, submission is meant in the sense of admiration and pursuit of his well-being and honor.

Now, the interesting thing in the New Testament is that no specific rules are set forth for how husband/wife relationships should be pursued, but rather general principles. Husbands are to put extra effort into loving their wives and wives into respecting their husbands. My guess is that the general temptation of a wife is to gossip about or mother her husband and that the general temptation of a husband is to treat his wife harshly (like one of the fellas), neglect her needs, or talk down to her. So Paul give instructions to address each of these in Ephesians 5:33, “Let each husband love his own wife as himself and each wife respect her husband.”

As a tip, I recommend that men go out of their way to be admirable (to make your wife’s job of respect easier), and that women go out of their way to be sweet/lovable (to make your husband’s job easier).

As an aside, there is a sense in which husbands are to respect/honor their wives (Proverbs 31 says that a good husband praises his wife in the gates) and wives are to love their husbands, as the general command to Christians is to respect each other, encourage one another, listen to one another, and love each other.

Briefly, nowhere in Scripture is a husband instructed to boss his wife around, abuse her, or run her down as a function of his headship. That has happened in history and been perpetrated by Christians, but is forbidden in Scripture (1 Peter 3:7).

Question 2: What does it mean to be a Christian?

Some people feel that women might lose their autonomy in a marriage that uses the language of ‘headship’ or ‘submission.’ I want to address a few things here:

  1. People are justified by faith in Christ. So one does not become a Christian by figuring out how to be a spouse. Rather, one learns to be a better spouse by discipleship to Christ. This particular issue, while important, is secondary. Not only is it secondary, it’s disputed. The picture I painted above may not be accurate.
  2. One loses and gains autonomy as a Christian. When you become a Christian, you’re committing to be crucified to the world with Christ. But in doing so, you can find your life and find it to the full.
  3. When you get married, whether you’re a husband or a wife, you’re more specifically defining who you are. To define oneself at all is a simultaneous gain and loss of autonomy. If you become Jackie’s husband or Jerry’s wife, then you’re making a choice to be a specific person bound to another specific person. In that sense, you put on an identity within which to make a wide range of previously unavailable choices (gained autonomy) and you’ve severely limited your choices as well (lost autonomy).

Converting to Christianity or getting married is to lose/gain autonomy, but this is how all choices are. I do fear that certain quarters of the feminist movement want a world in which choices lead only to gained autonomy:

It would appear that while no woman needs a man for companionship, women need men and other women to pay for their birth control.

Thankfully, such a world is impossible.

Question 3: Is the picture of headship prescribed in Scripture good or workable?

I think the answer is yes. Most of what comes next is just a sketch, and maybe even speculative, though the psychological (esp. evo-psych) and anthropological research is there.

The notion that headship means domineering is clearly wrong. The notion that it means to protect, provide, represent, and lead is generally what children want in a dad and wives in a husband. In cases wherein things are different, the Bible is clear that people should treat others as they want to be treated and discussion and compromise are necessary. But I think that in the majority of civilizational history, women have had particular duties which made it difficult for them to be, in any sense, “head” of the family. Once a baby was born, mom became attached to the duties of feeding, educating, and otherwise caring for baby. This did not mean that they weren’t leaders, influencers, creative thinkers, or productive. It just meant they did it as mothers.

Insofar as biological sex differences are products of divine creation and/or evolutionary processes, the development of the headship model is rather natural and the Paul’s method of attaching the mutual ethics of love and respect to that model help to make it work in a fashion, not of biological necessity, but of Christian spiritual formation.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s best to remember that the New Testament commands all Christians to love and honor/submit to one another and that the character of married couples must include both of those traits, because in many places those characteristics are encourages without reference to gender roles or any roles in particular. So, Christian wives ought to respect their husbands and Christian husbands ought to love their wives.

The other details (the nature of roles) are definitely cultural, but culture comes from human beings whose behavior comes from their nature. And so it’s best to determine if the roles mentioned in the New Testament work before rejecting them outright. And like many of the social rules in the New Testament, there are likely exceptions.

Approval seeking and its dangers

Everybody wants to be accepted and approved of.

In fact, social rejection (or by inference, sense of rejection by God) can be just as jarring as physical pain.

There’s a haunting scene in the gospels in which people respond negatively to Jesus, and while he has a theological explanation for the event at hand, he still asks Peter, “Will you leave also? (John 6:68)” To wish for acceptance is human and indeed.

In fact, being accepted by the group, is a generally good desire. It could mean the difference between life and death. An Old Testament punishment is being “cut off” from civilization itself! (Exodus 30:33, etc)

Paul the apostle observed that receiving emotional support and acceptance is a positive good:

They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. (18) It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, (19) my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! (Galatians 4:17-19 ESV)

On the other hand, seeking approval of others can be a deadly poison that keeps you from truth, goodness, beauty, and true friendship with God and man. For instance, New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd, whose Theology of the New Testament is a most excellent book, sought approval so hard that a bad book review tanked his motivation and self-image for life.

John Piper observed that:

George Ladd was almost undone emotionally and professionally by a critical review of Jesus and the Kingdomby Norman Perrin of the University of Chicago. And when his New Testament Theology was a stunning success 10 years later, he walked through the halls shouting and waving a $9000 royalty check.

But, in A Place at the Table, John D’Elia observed that Perrin’s critique led Ladd to

“…descend into bitter depression and alcohol abuse from which he would never recover. (xx)”

I think one of the elements Christians struggle with is acceptance with the world, particularly because of an egregious misunderstanding of Jesus’ command to be “let your light enlighten.” But the struggle is essentially based on a poorly aimed desire to evangelize and therefore seem pleasing. But while acceptance and being accepted are aspects of virtue, they are not themselves virtuous or necessarily indicative of virtue. Seeking acceptance is just another form of seeking status, which ultimately begs the questions:

  1. Acceptance by whom?
  2. Acceptance on the basis of what?

Below I offer a rough sketch of a hierarchy of acceptance/social approval in the Bible. Social approval is a good and it ought to be desired, but it

Acting in order to achieve approval or group acceptance as an absolute leads to conformity, immorality, regret, and resentment. In marriage it can lead to misery. At work it can get you fire. The Bible challenges us to seek approval, but from specific people and groups and by particular standards:

  1. Seek to be acceptable to Christ, while recognizing that he already accepts you.
    “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12 ESV)
  2. Seek approval from God by doing what is good, even in the face of mass social disapproval (Exodus 23:2).
    In one of my favorite comic books a character which the author, I think, meant to paint as a bad guy said, “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” Of course, there are limits to this, you might be wrong about your point of view. But the Bible reminds us of this, too (Proverbs 29:1).
  3. Seek the approval of your family by gaining wisdom in particular and virtue in general. “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother.” (Proverbs 10:1 ESV)
  4. Seek the approval of the virtuous people in the kingdom of God by confessing your sin and seeking Christ and Christian virtue with them (Matthew 18:15-20).
  5. Seek the approval of the humanity in general by not being unreasonable by common standards as long as your behavior isn’t objectively evil or illogical (Romans 12:17).
  6. Seek the approval of the rich, not by sucking up, but by offering exceptional service at a fair rate (Proverbs 22:29).

Appendix

My copy of Ladd’s magnum opus:

Who Should Evangelize?

I saw this quote online today:

It raised an interesting point that I think needs brief elaboration. Here’s the great commission from Matthew 28:18-20:

Matthew 28:18-20 ESV And Jesus came and said to them [the eleven disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (19) Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (20) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Now, in the quote above, he mentions that evangelism was the job of the disciples. And I agree, the great commission was originally given to the remaining disciples. Here are three points:

  1. The disciples are told that making disciples includes, “teaching them to observe all that I [Jesus] have commanded you.”
  2. This means that making new disciples is one of the skills Jesus commands them to obtain.
  3. The word for all Christians by the time the book of Acts was written was, “disciples.” “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” (Acts 6:1 ESV)

So, I think that all Christians are supposed to evangelize at some point (raising up children in the faith, sharing the gospel with somebody who asks a question, or initiating a conversation with a friend, family member or stranger).

Now, the individual who made this point made a few interesting points that deserve consideration because they were intelligently and honestly made:

  1. God doesn’t need evangelists. This is a fact. God needs literally nothing.
  2. God doesn’t want evangelists. This doesn’t hold if it’s true that Jesus represents God’s will and commands people to become disciples who make disciples. If God wants you to obey Jesus’ commands, then he wants you to be an evangelist.
  3. Ask God what he wants you to do. While I think God can supernaturally make his will apparent, God’s will for our lives is clearly taught in the four gospels, the book of Proverbs, and frankly the rest of Scripture. Waiting for specific, personal words from God when God has made clear what we should do in public revelation might leave us waiting too long.
  4. Unless your life is his will it takes some pain. I think that pain can come from doing good or evil. Not all pain is bad and some pain exists precisely to tell us to repent. It all depends.
  5. Unless we rise to his level, we are servants. Jesus makes clear that even among those who are saved, some people know his business and some don’t. Here’s what Jesus said about the matter, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:14-15 ESV)

 

What does the Bible say about finding romance?

Perhaps the two most frequent things young Christian men ask me for advice about are relationships and overcoming a pornography habit. I’ll stick with relationships, though Dallas Willard has great advice for those who struggle to kick pornography: Beyond Pornography. On to relationships.

Most of the guys who ask for advice, though sometimes women come to my wife for such advice as well, ask how to enter into a relationship in the first place in the current dating market. Many of them suffer from a glut of two pieces of advice:

  1. Be yourself.
  2. Just be a nice guy and girls will fall in love with you.

The problem with both of these pieces of advice is that neither of them are connected in any specific way with Christian piety or with general wisdom. Here are the problems with each piece of advice:

  1. Be yourself.
    This piece of pop-culture advice has the potential to be very valuable when applied to truth telling, staying the course when virtue comes up against resistance, or refusing to compromise on important decisions. But in general it is suicide for anybody whose personal problems stem from personal failures. Telling people who struggled fundamentally with the following sentences to just be themselves won’t help them:
    “I’m lonely and have trouble making friends.”
    “I’m overweight.”
    “I’m lazy.”
    “I’m disorganized.”
    “I’m not funny.”
    What most people need to do is make fundamental changes to how they live in order to be happy.
  2. Just be a nice guy and girls will fall in love with you.
    If what people mean by this is, “Stop being immoral,” then it  is half reasonable. But in practice, it amounts to, “Don’t ask a girl out, just be her friend, be nice, and eventually she’ll notice.” It’s similar to the bad evangelism advice, “Just follow Jesus and people will ask.” It’s a bit narcissistic and it sets people up to be bitter about being friendly because they expect an unlikely or even impossible result. One should not simply become virtuous (especially if it is defined as niceness) in order to get people to love them. That’s stupid on the surface. But it’s also untrue that niceness, as described above, will land you a date.

So, what should a man who wants to be a disciple of Jesus do when struggling with loneliness or failing to ever successfully ask a girl on a date (or ask at all)? The advice below, by the way, is also applicable to women and married people.

  1. Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. (Matt 6:33)
    The first thing that needs to happen anytime there is a lack in our lives is that we need to reevaluate whether or not we’re living virtuously and basing our choices upon what benefits God’s people and what is in line with God’s purposes. Establishing, in our minds that our purpose is to pursue virtue and fulfill the duties God has placed before us is a powerful medicine for discontentment. The command to focus on our righteousness in the face of missing elements of the good life (read all of Matthew 6 if you would) is central to understanding what it means to be a Christian and it requires us to always re-calibrate our understanding of the good life and also recognizing that there is a highest possible value to seek in life. If people are so obsessed with getting a romantic partner that they compromise on virtue, success, or God’s purposes in general, then they are likely to find sinful romance (see Proverbs 1-9) and end up unhappy anyway. To seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness means (or see here for a rough sketch of what it means):

    1. Accept responsibility for your sinfulness.
    2. Accept responsibility for your problems in general.
    3. Work regularly on trying to fix them.
    4. Work on gaining all the virtues of Scripture (not just niceness).
    5. Learn to be content with God and virtue (in other words, gain some outcome independence, be fine with failure, and be comfortable with lack when you’ve done the right, wise, and courageous thing).
  2. Become skillful (Proverbs 22:29).
    In general, it’s important to have a skill or set of skills for making money, occupying your time, and bringing order into the world which God has given to us. We’re happier when we’re good at something. But learning to make your way in the world, accrue resources, and manage them well is very important for happiness in general (regardless of relationship status) as well as for finding love. Many young Christians spend so much time volunteering, hanging out, and ‘doing ministry’ that they neglect their studies, gain few useful skills, and make very little money in their twenties. This is economic suicide for your thirties and beyond. And being skillful tends to make you more interesting. I knew a woman once, who felt her calling was to be “a stay at home wife.” But she had no domestic skills. A man who expects to be married to somebody who pulls their weight in the relationship would run like Carl Weathers in Rocky III to avoid that sort of marriage. Similarly, men who cannot make money are simply less interesting to women generally. These claims aren’t always true, but they hold with the general population.
  3. Become likable and interesting. (Song of Solomon 1:3)
    One of the reasons that the woman in Song of Solomon is enamored by the man is that “his name is like oil poured out, therefore all the young women love you.” In other words, people love talking about him and they have pleasant things to say. She likes him, likes hearing about him, and likes talking about him. There are dozens of ways to become likable and only some of them require that you give up on virtue and God’s purposes. But having interesting stories, being generous, learning to be funny, dressing well, having bigger muscles, having a healthy BMI, learning to cook, being skillful (see above), being involved in your church, learning rhetoric, reading books, memorizing poetry, having party tricks, and having fun hobbies all go a long way to making you likable.
  4. Be selective. (1 Corinthians 9:5)
    In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul mentions that he and his fellow single apostles would be within their rights to have a “sister wife.” What that means is “wife who believes the gospel and cooperates with our life vision to share the gospel abroad.” Paul doesn’t take a wife because he believes it is virtuous to care for her and not endanger her. But the point stands that he perceives Christians should only marry other Christians. But I would add that one should try to marry somebody who is interested in your career and calling. One’s perception of these things changes over time, but marrying somebody who also wants to do what you want to do is both Christian and wise. Living with somebody who hates your career, calling, or life vision is miserable. It essentially forces you to have committed yourself to seek romance/sex from the only person in the world who regularly resents you, I suspect that nothing could be more miserable. On the other hand, having a virtuous circle of encouragement, challenge to improve, increased attraction, and increased friendship is idyllic and quite possible. It’s like the Scripture says, “at the right of the Lord are pleasures evermore.” (Ps 16:11) And marriage is God’s idea.

To summarize, working on yourself is the most central key to getting others to like you and learning to improve yourself whether or not others like you is utterly central to happiness. Failing to learn that lesson will not only lead to loneliness, but deeper dissatisfaction with relationships as well because you force your happiness to depend upon things other than God and upon things you cannot control.

Jordan Peterson and the Psychology of Redemption

Psychology of God Belief

In his excellent talk on the psychology of redemption in Christianity, Dr. Jordan Peterson explains how the Christian vision of God creates balance in the people’s minds. It does do by allowing for them to pursue an ideal without treating their own personal interpretations or reductions of that ideal as absolute in themselves. How? Because God is beyond our understanding, except as the highest possible good.

A New Testament Theological Take

What Peterson’s take might mean for the Christian is that our vision of God provides an ideal to pursue. But what idea? Primarily, it is that of the virtue revealed in Jesus and his teachings. Secondly, it is the Old Testament, interpreted through Christ. Finally, the virtue evident through the study of nature. But, since God and even the highest human character possible are ultimately incomprehensible, conversations with truth-telling as the goal must occur so that we can make the course corrections necessary to attain to the ideal. This is why Paul can say that he presses onward toward the goal, but also that he does not think he has attained to the goal of perfect participation in God or in the character of Jesus Christ.

The Jordan Peterson Video:

Here’s my own take on that concept:

Here are some of the relevant passages of Scripture:

Matthew 6:25-34 ESV “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (26) Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (27) And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (28) And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, (29) yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (30) But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (31) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ (32) For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (34) “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (4) Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant (5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; (6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. (7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (8) Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (9) For we know in part and we prophesy in part, (10) but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. (12) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13) So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

 

Hebrews 1:1-4 ESV Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, (2) but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (3) He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, (4) having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

 

Philippians 3:12-14 ESV Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (13) Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (14) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.