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August 20th, 2012 @ 12:37 pm by Kevin
In case you haven’t seen it yet, over the weekend I posted an outtake from an interview I did with Reformed blogger Justin Taylor, in which he argues that Calvinist theology does not make God a moral monster. Today, Justin posted a few follow-up comments on his blog. So I thought I should share some thoughts here as well. First, a quick summary of the video:
Justin begins by affirming that God is all-loving and all-powerful, and that he can save everyone (from hell). But God loves his Bride, the elect, in a special way. Therefore, he won’t save everyone, and this in no way violates his loving nature. The only reason we may have a problem with this, is that we begin with a human definition of love (such as “God loves everyone equally”) and then hold God hostage to that definition.
Justin wants to reverse this, arguing that humans don’t define love; God does. And if God is love, everything he does is loving–including loving some people and not others or killing the firstborn sons of Egypt, as recorded in the book of Exodus. Furthermore, as part of the Trinity, Jesus actively participated in such events. Therefore, if we are going to accept Scripture as authoritative, we have to accept that slaughtering babies is perfectly compatible with love of enemy–at least when God/Jesus does it.
I push back against this, saying that on a human level, if a father could save all of his children from some sort of calamity but he only saves some, we call him a criminal. (And I never thought to mention what we call a father who slaughters his firstborn…) So if God exhibits this same sort of behavior, how can God possibly evade such charges?
In the video, Justin responds by arguing that such analogies may appeal on an emotional level, but they are really just a slick way of ducking the authority of Scripture. Unlike his opponents–who not only import their own definitions of love into the Bible but who also (apparently) read it selectively–Justin’s view takes into account all of the details of Scripture. Killing babies and loving enemies is not a contradiction; it is merely a paradox, and Justin is willing to live within that tension.
In the follow-up comments on his blog, Justin added that he also rejects the premise of my Father-children analogy, suggesting that a better analogy is the relationship between Righteous Judge and unrepentant criminal.
in the Christian worldview we are rebelling against the Judge and receive a free offer of mercy which we reject.
He goes on to define the underlying issue he sees at play not only in this debate but also throughout what he calls “progressive revisionism”:
namely the desire to create God in our own image, to create a functional canon within a canon, to reason from the ground-up rather than the top-down, and to require that God’s authoritative revelation first meet with our approval.
And now, a few comments in response:
First, accusing people like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Greg Boyd and other progressive/emergent types of creating God in their own image is at best a gross distortion. As I noted in the video, these folks are merely striving to reconcile violent images of God in the Old Testament, for example, with Christ’s clear teachings about how we are to love not only our neighbor but also our enemy. They’re not recreating God in their image; they’re seeking to reconcile violent images of God in the Old Testament with the loving, non-violent image of Christ. Furthermore, they are not importing their definition of love into Scripture or demanding that it meet their approval. Rather, they are merely seeking to make the Bible internally coherent. You might say they’re trying to do exactly the same thing as Justin; they’re just going about it in a different way. Therefore, to accuse them of ducking the authority of Scripture is simply false.
Second, Justin also accuses his opponents of failing to take into account all of the details of Scripture, of creating a “canon within a canon.” This is another false charge, but not in the way you might think. First of all, you would be hard-pressed to prove that any of these people are ignorant of or purposefully ignoring sections of Scripture they find objectionable. All of the folks I spoke to are well-versed in the Calvinist arguments–and some even were Calvinists at one point–but eventually found the arguments wanting.
Furthermore, everyone has a canon within a canon–including Justin. Everyone has what Richard Beck calls a regulating text–a Scripture passage or a theological concept that becomes the lens through which they view the rest of Scripture. Over time, this text or concept often becomes a non-negotiable, the foundation on which we (wittingly or not) build the rest of our theology. Justin attempts to frame this as a debate between those who have regulating texts (his opponents) and those who don’t (people like him). But that can’t possibly be true. Otherwise he wouldn’t be in the Reformed camp, which prioritizes a certain group of texts in the same way Arminians prioritize another group of texts. Justin even quotes one of his regulating texts, “‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:14). What he doesn’t happen to mention is that Paul quotes this verse (Exodus 33:19) in the midst of a broader discussion about the wideness of God’s mercy. In other words, Paul is arguing against the very sort of exclusive theology Justin promotes. Ironically, Paul’s argument culminates in what has become a regulating text for many Universalists: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32). This leaves one to wonder who is actually ignoring the details of Scripture…
To take the concept of a “canon within a canon” a step further, I would add that for Justin’s opponents, this isn’t simply a matter of playing off one set of texts against another. For them, the ultimate canon within the canon isn’t a text at all. It’s a person–Jesus. In John 14:9, Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” I think even Justin will agree that the Bible portrays Jesus as the perfect revelation of God. Therefore, he becomes the “Rosetta Stone” that allows us to decode the rest of Scripture. So if we see horrific acts attributed to God in the Old Testament, rather than say, “Well, I can’t see how dashing infants’ heads upon rocks is consistent with enemy love, but if the Bible says it, I believe it,” we should test such assertions against the character and teachings of Christ. Are they consistent? If not, rather than shrug and say, “Well, I guess God’s ways are higher than our ways, his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9)” (which is also, BTW, stated in the mist of an argument for inclusion rather than exclusion), we should stop and consider that perhaps some of the actions attributed to God in the Bible may themselves be the sort of human projection that Justin detests so much. Of course, this opens up a much broader discussion on competing theories of inspiration. I think Justin and I have a pretty significant disagreement on this level, but that’s an argument for another day. (I do have a few things to say about that subject here.)
Third, Justin and I also have a fundamental disagreement over the most appropriate metaphor to describe our relationship with God. I would argue that the dominant metaphor Christ gave us is Father-child. Justin has staked his claim on Judge-criminal. (We can both offer our own body of proof texts in response, but why bother.) If God is a Father at all for Justin, he isn’t a father to everyone; merely to the elect. So to go back to my analogy about a father saving some but not all of his children, Justin would either say that the Father wants to save all of his children, but some of them refuse his help, and so they perish, or that not all of the perishing people are his children (even though he created them), therefore, he has no moral obligation to save them. Had Justin brought either of these options up in the interview, I would have countered by saying one of the following 1) even if one of my four children were in danger and three out of four of them refused my help, I would still save all four of them, thinking that the other three were simply out of their minds and that they would come to recognize the error of their ways once the crisis was over. 2) Alternatively, I would have argued that just as parents are morally obligated to love and nurture their children, so God is morally obligated to do the same for everyone he creates. Otherwise he is asking us to do something he is unwilling to do himself.
Finally, I take it from Justin’s comments that he has little or no regard for experience as a means of revelation. He downplays so-called “horizontal reasoning” in favor of top-down approach. As I’ve described in a previous post, our theology is the product of four main sources: Scripture, reason, tradition and experience. Depending where you live on the theological spectrum, you will tend to prioritize one or more of these sources over the others, but taken together, they function as a form of checks and balances. Going back to experience as a means revelation, if humans truly are created in the image of God, then our direct experience of something like parent-child relationships has a lot to tell us about our relationship with God. Granted, we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12), but rather than discourage us from projecting that experience onto God, we should instead take it as an encouragement to believe that God’s love for his children far overwhelms our own puny feelings. In fact, Jesus encourages us to do just that:
Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
So if your interpretation of the Bible leads you to conclude that God is a moral monster who slaughters babies, refuses to practice what he preaches and feels no moral obligation to some (many) of the people he has created, instead of doubting your experience–as Justin would have you do–I would apply reason, tradition and experience to help you understand how your interpretation of Scripture could have gone so wrong.