God Redeems His People … Then and Now

Middleton A New Heaven and EarthOne of the overarching themes of the Old Testament is God’s redemption of his people (and boy, do they (we) need it). Chapter six four of Richard Middleton’s book A New Heaven and a New Earth sketches this Old Testament view of salvation. But, and this is an important but, salvation in the Old Testament is, without exception, salvation aimed at earthly human flourishing in community. This is in line with the creation mandate for humans to be God’s image bearers on earth. To rule, subdue, and create. Humans were created to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, to till and keep God’s sacred space. Male and female we were created for this. But human rebellion and sin prevents the fulfillment of this calling.

This chapter lays out some key points in Middleton’s argument to reclaim biblical eschatology and grasp the impact of the anticipation of a new heaven and a new earth. It is hard to over estimate the importance of the Old Testament view of God’s salvation to the New Testament view of salvation. Certainly our tendency is to underestimate its importance and chase rabbit trails instead.

[W]e are prone to miss the amazing scope of God’s redemption, and especially its full-bodied, this-worldly character, if we do not read the New Testament with the worldview of the Old Testament as our basis and guide. And I found that the more I understood the Old Testament (which was Scripture for Jesus and the early church), the more depth and complexity I saw in the New Testament, and the more meaningful it became. (p. 78)

Although it is possible to learn much from the New Testament alone, much that is important is missing without the story behind the story of Jesus. The biblical view of salvation is one of those topics that can be seriously distorted. Salvation is not limited to forgiveness of sins or to an assurance of heaven when we die.

[Salvation as] being made right with God through forgiveness of sins … is not wrong, but it leaves out a great deal. … Salvation is much wider than that; it cannot be limited to forgiveness of sins or escaping judgement. In the Bible, salvation is a comprehensive reality, both future and present, and affects every aspect of existence.

The most fundamental meaning of salvation in Scripture is twofold: it is God’s deliverance of those in a situation of need from that which impedes their well-being, resulting in restoration to wholeness. Wholeness or well-being is God’s original intent for creation, and that which impedes wholeness – sin, evil, and death in all their forms – is fundamentally anti-creational. Both the deliverance of the needy and their full restoration to well-being (in relationship with God, others, and the world) are crucial to salvation, and the term may be used for either or both together. (p. 79)

John_Martin_plaguesMiddleton defends this view by looking at salvation in the Old Testament. The story of the exodus from Egypt is the paradigmatic example of God’s deliverance. God rescued Israel from oppression by the Egyptians and shaped, formed, and established them as his people. The following elements played key roles in the exodus and throughout Scripture. Continue reading

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Nothing More to be Prized

There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.

Friendship is the source of the greatest pleasures, and without friends even the most agreeable pursuits become tedious.

Sometime c. 1267 Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote a short piece De regno ad regem Cypri or On Kingship To The King of Cyprus. The quotes above come from book 1, chapter 11, paragraph 77 in fuller context and a slightly different translation (the Latin is also included at the link above):

First of all, among all worldly things there is nothing which seems worthy to be preferred to friendship. Friendship unites good men and preserves and promotes virtue. Friendship is needed by all men in whatsoever occupations they engage. In prosperity it does not thrust itself unwanted upon us, nor does it desert us in adversity. It is what brings with it the greatest delight, to such an extent that all that pleases is changed to weariness when friends are absent, and all difficult things are made easy and as nothing by love.

Oxford from aboveI’ve been reading a book recently that demonstrates this point, The Oxford Inklings: Their Lives, Writings, Ideas, and Influence by Colin Duriez. Friendship, good friendship unites us and preserves and promotes virtue. Certainly it did so for C. S. Lewis and his friends. J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and more. Friendship allows the safety to explore and test ideas and to grow. It was the Christian commitments of his friends, men he could argue with, getting below the surface level discussion that brought Lewis (back) to Christ and church.

Materialism was sweeping the academic landscape as Lewis returned to Oxford after the first World War and matured as a scholar. Lewis accepted this as liberating. In Surprised by Joy he writes:

In my first two years at Oxford I was busily engaged (apart from “doing Mods” and “beginning Greats”) in assuming what we may call an intellectual “New Look.” There was to be no more pessimism, no more self-pity, no flirtations with any idea of the supernatural, no romantic delusions. In a word, like the heroine of Northanger Abbey, I formed the resolution “of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense.” (p. 199, Surprised by Joy)

Those who’ve read Northanger Abbey (one of my favorite Jane Austen books) will get the allusion. No romantic delusions. For Lewis this meant no God.

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“The Devil Possess Them” and Other Responses

gal_earth_moon ds3The next chapter of Kyle Greenwood’s new book Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science looks at Christian responses to the Copernican revolution. Most of us today see no theological problem with the idea that the earth both orbits the sun and spins on its axis. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and finally Newton put together a convincing argument, beginning with observation and mathematics and ultimately the theory of gravity and mechanics whereby the less massive objects orbit the more massive objects (more accurately a system of objects revolves around its center of mass).

As time has passed our human view of cosmology has become more sophisticated, moving from (2) an empirical understanding of flat earth with a roof overhead to (2) a spherical earth with heavens revolving around, to (3) a heliocentric model with the earth, planets and stars orbiting the sun, and now (4) a centerless model, that is an infinite expanding universe having no definable center. The last stretches one’s ability to comprehend. Physicists tell us that the universe has been infinite since the Big Bang – there is no center out of which every thing emerges. Rather, the whole itself is expanding. The Old Testament presents a flat earth view (Creation Beyond Genesis), consistent with the time and culture (A Three-Tiered Universe). The early and medieval church generally accepted a spherical earth although it did lead to interpretative challenges (A Spherical Earth … Oh No!). Heliocentrism posed yet another and in some ways more significant challenge.

TimelineGreenwood presents a good overview of the historical development and Christian responses from Copernicus (1473-1543) to Newton (1643-1727). Copernicus was approximately contemporary with Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Revolution. Some of his ideas were known to the reformers. Georg Rheticus from the University of Wittenburg was with Copernicus from 1539-1541 and facilitated the publication of Copernicus’s “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” Copernicus was wary of public, and especially church, response to his theory and published his most significant work only at the end of his life. We take his insights for granted today:

In chapters ten and eleven of Revolutions, Copernicus articulates his innovative model of heavenly movements. Rather than heavenly spheres rotating around the earth, Copernicus demonstrates that a “threefold movement of the Earth” accounts for all of the celestial observations. The three movements are (1) daily rotation of the earth on its axis, (2) annual orbit of the earth around the sun and (3) seasonal shift in the tilt of the earth on its axis. (p. 163)

Copernicus’s model was good, but not perfect. In particular it did not entirely explain the motion of Mars and Venus. Kepler’s elliptical orbits provided the needed correction. The observations of Brahe and Galileo along with the mathematical prowess of Kepler put the nail in the coffin of an earth centered universe (although the idea yet took awhile to die).

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No “New” Science

Science AnswersI’ve been reading and posting on Kyle Greenwood’s book Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science. Brad Kramer is beginning a series on this book as well over on his blog The Evolving Evangelical at BioLogos. Brad has an excellent and thought provoking post this week to set the stage for his series: No, Modern Science is Not “Catching Up” to the Bible. Brad has been the managing editor at BioLogos for the last year or so. With an MDiv from Biblical Seminary and an upbringing where evolution was the enemy (see his story here), he brings an important and helpful perspective to BioLogos. This latest post is centered around an image that makes the rounds on Facebook every so often. You can click on the hard to read version above to see a larger, clearer, image.

Brad starts his essay:

The chart above has been floating around social media for the past couple of months, and it recently appeared in my Facebook news feed. In trying to track it down via Google, I found many sites reposting it under the title “Modern Science is Catching Up to the Bible”. For many Christians who feel beaten down by atheist voices ridiculing the Bible as an ancient relic, this chart presses all the right buttons. I totally get this. One of the reasons I found young-earth creationism (YEC) so captivating in my childhood is that these sorts of “science prophecies” in the Bible gave me a thrilling sense of confidence and certainty in my faith. If the Bible, written thousands of years before modern science, contained scientific information that the authors could not possibly have known without divine revelation, then surely it was a supernatural book that could be trusted as God’s Word.

Of course none of the examples listed in the chart stand up to deeper inspection. Take Job 26:7 “he hangs the earth upon nothing“. But is this really a statement about a free-floating earth? The context is quite complex.

7 He stretches out Zaphon over the void,
and hangs the earth upon nothing.

10 He has described a circle on the face of the waters,
at the boundary between light and darkness.
11 The pillars of heaven tremble,
and are astounded at his rebuke.
12 By his power he stilled the Sea;
by his understanding he struck down Rahab.

The supposed scientific statement describing a free-floating earth in space is preceded by a reference to “the mythological mountain where the gods dwell.” Tremper Longman points out that “in Ugartic literature, Baal lives on Mount Zaphon.” (p. 316 Job) Not only this, the circle on the face of the waters refers to a flat earth, pillars hold up the heavens, and there is reference to the defeat of a mythological sea monster Rahab. In fact, the Sea is capitalized because it is probably a reference to Yam, a Canaanite god. The passage in context does not exactly inspire confidence in this chapter of Job as a source for modern scientific understanding. (Although Job is a powerful and thought-provoking book that reveals much about the nature of God and his relationship with his creation.)

The other examples in the table above are equally unconvincing.

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Posted in Bible, cosmology, Creation, Science

The Thrust of the Biblical Plot

Middleton A New Heaven and EarthA while ago I was taken to task in a (late) comment on a post I put up discussing the Bible’s plot line. I find the short hand creation – fall – redemption – new creation or consummation (CFRC) to be an over simplification that under emphasizes the Old Testament and leaves the impression that the incarnation was an after thought response to humans. This commenter noted with some passion that more sophisticated framings exist. It is these that should be wrestled with rather than the “easy pickings.” Richard Middleton begins his book A New Heaven and a New Earth with an outline of the plot of the Bible. His view is, by his own telling, CFRC, but with more sophistication and taking the Old Testament seriously. No doubt there will still be areas in need of discussion, but Middleton’s outline deserves to be considered carefully.

Humanity. From Creation to Eschaton (part one of Middleton’s book) outlines the biblical plot beginning with a consideration of human purpose. This is something of a summary of Middleton’s arguments concerning the call and vocation of humans as the image of God which is presented in much greater detail in The Liberating Image.

We are called to be God’s image in creation. This is explicit in Genesis 1 and implicit in Genesis 2.

Just as as the cult statue or image in an ancient Near Eastern temple was meant to mediate the deity’s presence to worshipers, so humans are the divinely designated mediators of the creator’s presence from heaven (where YHWH is enthroned) to earth. But whereas cult images of the gods are false images, and impotent to boot (Ps 115:4-8), humans are powerful, living images of the one true God, called to manifest God’s presence by their active cultural development of the earth. By our obedient exercise of power, humanity as imago Dei functions like a prism, refracting the pure light of God into a rainbow of cultural activities that scintillate with the creator’s glory throughout the earth. By our faithful representation of God, who is enthroned in the heavens, we extend the presence of the divine king of creation even to the earth, to prepare for God’s full – eschatological – presence, the day when God will fill all things. Then (when God fully indwells the earthly realm) the cosmic temple of creation will have been brought to its intended destiny. (p. 49)

There is a problem however. Humans have corrupted this God given calling and vocation. Violence, domination, and evil are manifest in human culture and and in the way humans exercise their rule. This begins at the beginning (Genesis 3 in the Bible) and continues throughout all of human history.

The plot line. Given this view of human vocation, Middleton turns to the overall plot line in scripture (This figure and the following figures are adapted from Fig. 3.2 p. 60). At the most fundamental level this is simple:

plot 1nGod created humanity in his image to rule his creation. Ultimately this will lead to the consummation that God has planned from the beginning.

Because humans have failed in obedience we see several subplots in Scripture, added layers to the plot. These subplots address the question: How will the fundamental plot line be maintained? The primeval history in Genesis 4-11 makes clear that there is a deep problem. Even the flood is “a failed attempt at narrative resolution, since the human heart has not been changed.” (p. 61) Reducing the human population to one righteous man and his family won’t solve the problem.

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Doomsday Approaches

Emerging AdulthoodA couple of weeks ago I put up a post (Just the Facts Please) on Jonathan Hill’s short book Emerging Adulthood and Faith. This book describes some of his research into the faith evolution of young adults today – trying to separate the influence of stage of life from historical and generational effects. A wise response to the apparent exodus of younger adults from the church depends on the nature of these influences. Today I would like to look at the conclusions that Hill draws from his research.

Why do doomsday scenarios carry such appeal? Hill suggests three reasons:

First, our own social experience strongly colors how we frame the problem and interpret the data, yet our personal experience can frequently be an unreliable guide.” (p. 61)

There is a distortion in perception that arises from the ways we receive data. Personal stories are powerful and true, but the ones that “stick” are the stories from the margins, not the mainstream. Hill points out that many Americans feel that violent crime is up while the data shows that homicide, for example, is markedly down since 1990 and at about the same level as the 1950’s. “All violent crime has been declining, yet public perception of crime—largely filtered through mass media and politicians—is systematically in error.” (p. 61-62) The stories told in the Christian community carry the same kind of bias.

Second, generating crises in the Church can be an efficient and effective way to mobilize the faithful to action. (p. 62)

Sociological study of social movements can identify techniques that succeed in building a community.

Elites must work on generating an interpretational framework that identifies a specific problem, then identifies the source(s) of the problem, and finally provides a potential solution in the form of collective action. Further, the entire interpretational framework must align with existing grievances in recruits, otherwise collective action will fail. The temptation, then, will be for leaders in the Church to frame concerns about the next generation of Christians in such a way as to result in action by the rank and file, even if these interpretations are not entirely accurate. (p. 62, emphasis added)

Grabbing onto a crisis works to build a cohesive following.

Last, there is a fairly large gap between the ideal concept of Christian faithfulness and the “lived religion” of ordinary
believers. (p. 62)

There is a tendency to idealize the past and see the current trends as a significant deviation. One thing the longitudinal studies show is that this is not really the case. While there is a clear generational loss of youth from the Catholic church the same cannot be said for Protestants, particularly “evangelical” Protestants. Beyond these longitudinal studies, there is a temptation to believe that the current state is the result of a serious religious decline and the historical evidence (although sketchy) doesn’t really support this. A so-called “Christian” nation didn’t necessarily mean deeper, or more wide-spread, devotion.

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A Spherical Earth … Oh No!

gal_earth_moon ds3The next chapter in Kyle Greenwood’s new book Scripture and Cosmology looks at the move from an ancient Near Eastern view of the cosmos to an Aristotelian view. In the fifth and fourth century BC (i.e. 400’s and 300’s) change was afoot. The typical ancient Near Eastern view of the cosmos involved a flat earth with boundaries, foundations, and a roof (firmament) overhead. The earlier Greek view was similar, but accumulating knowledge was pushing consensus toward a spherical earth. The available evidence is fragmentary, coming primarily from the writings of the philosophers, with a diversity of views represented. In the 300’s Aristotle accepted and taught the spherical nature of the earth and cosmos. He based his argument for a spherical earth on evidence.

In ~350 BC Aristotle wrote On the Heavens (Greek: Περὶ οὐρανοῦ, Latin: De Caelo). In this work (translated by J. L. Stock, Clarendon Press, Oxford) we read:

But the spherical shape, necessitated by this argument,follows also from the fact that the motions of heavy bodies always make equal angles, and are not parallel. This would be the natural form of movement towards what is naturally spherical. Either then the earth is spherical or it is at least naturally spherical. (297:15)

The evidence of the senses further corroborates this. How else would eclipses of the moon show segments shaped as we see them? (297:20)

Again, our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size. For quite a small change of position to south or north causes a manifest alteration of the horizon. (297:30)

Also, those mathematicians who try to calculate the size of the earth’s circumference arrive at the figure 400,000 stades. This indicates not only that the earth’s mass is spherical in shape, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size. (298:15)

Aristotle envisioned a series of concentric spheres with the earth at the center and the sun, moon, and planets and stars on outer spheres. The circumference of the earth given by Aristotle is about 1.6 times larger than the actual circumference or more, depending on the length of a stade. Another Greek (Eratotsthenes) came up with a much more accurate value for the circumference a couple of hundred years later.

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