All posts in “Theology”

Thomas F. Torrance on the Bible (11 Quotes)

LutherbibelA few weeks ago I finished reading Thomas Torrance’s book Reality and Evangelical TheologyIn this book, renowned theologian Thomas Torrance deals with an important issue, especially in today’s church: the bible.

How should we interpret the Scriptures?

Is the bible inerrant (perfect)? Or merely inspired?

Is the bible itself the truth or merely a witness to the truth?

I’ve already quoted the introduction of this book about fundamentalism and the scriptures (here), but I also wanted to post here my favorite quotes from the book. Not all of them have to do with scripture, but a large portion of them do. Later I plan to write an article about how this applies to the bible, but in the meantime enjoy these eleven quotes!

(All quotes are from the 1982 Westminster John Knox Pr. edition.) 

_____________

“The fact that, through the free grace of God, Jesus Christ is made our righteousness means that we have no righteousness of our own.” (P. 18)

“No one may boast in his own orthodoxy any more than he may boast of his own righteousness. Justification thus turns out to be the strongest statement of the objectivity of faith and knowledge.” (P. 18)

“If God is not inherently and eternally in himself what he is towards us in Jesus Christ, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we do not really or finally know God at all as he is in his abiding Reality.” (P. 24)

“…Since God has irreversibly incarnated his self-revelation in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, there cannot be two ways to knowledge of God, one in Jesus Christ and another behind his back, but only one way, through Christ and in his Spirit.” (P. 34)

“The development of fluid axioms which are continually open to change and renewal in the light of ever-deeper understanding of God means that the formulations of doctrine organized by reference to them must be open structures of thought and statement.” (P. 50)

“In a realist theology this will mean that we must distinguish no less sharply between dogmatic formulations of the truth and the truth itself, in the recognition that even when we have done all that it is our duty to do in relating them rightly (i.e., in an “orthodox” way) to the truth, they nevertheless fall far short of what they should be, and are inadequate. Indeed, it must be said that their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.” (P. 50-1)

“The Holy Scriptures are the spectacles through which we are brought to know the true God in such a way that our minds fall under the compelling power of his self-evidencing Reality.” (P. 64-5)

“As such Jesus Christ is the Word through whom and with whom and in whom the true and faithful response of man is made to God and divine revelation completes the circle of its own movement.” (P. 86)

“Once and for all he [Jesus Christ] has become God’s exclusive language to man and he alone must be man’s language to God.” (P. 88)

“Strictly speaking, Christ himself is the scope of the Scriptures, so that it is only through focusing constantly upon him, dwelling in his Word and assimilating his Mind, that the interpreter can discern the real meaning of the Scriptures. What is required then is a theological interpretation of the Scriptures under the direction of their ostensive reference to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and within the general perspective of faith.” (P. 107)

“That is to say, biblical statements are to be treated not as containing or embodying the Truth of God in themselves, but as pointing, under the leading of the Spirit of Truth, to Jesus Christ himself who is the Truth. We have to recognize the fact, therefore, that the Scriptures indicate much more than can be expressed, and that there is much more to their truth than can be reduced to words.” (P. 119)

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8 Incredible Karl Barth Quotes

Karl BarthMy attempt today is to summarize 800 pages of Karl Barth’s monumental work of theology on the election and command of God, which comes from book two of the volume entitled “The Doctrine of God” from the Church Dogmaticsall in eight quotes. Though it certainly goes without saying, this work is far to complex and rich a work to be summarized as such. However, I present these quotes as a taste of the brilliance this volume contains, and additionally for the purpose of compiling together my favorite quotes from the book. Enjoy! (All quotes are from the Hendrickson Publishers edition, 2010)

1. “The doctrine of election is the sum of the gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the one who loves in freedom.” (P. 3)

2. “…The simplest form of the dogma may be divided at once into the two assertions that Jesus Christ is the electing God and that He is also elected man.” (p.103)

3. “Our thesis is that God’s eternal will is the election of Jesus Christ.” (p. 146)

4. “[Man] can certainly flee from God (he does so), but he cannot escape Him… He may let go of God, but God does not let go of him” (p. 317)

5.  “The determination of the elect consists in the fact that he allows himself to be loved by God—to live as one from whom all eternity God in His incomprehensible and unmerited goodness did not will to renounce, and therefore will not renounce.” (p. 411)

6. “The command of God sets man free.” (p. 586)

7. “The mere fact that it takes place at all, that God stands before man as his Lord, that man’s existence can become his confrontation with God’s command, always means that God does not will to be without us, but, no matter who and what we may be, to be with us, that He Himself is always ‘God with us,’ Emmanuel.” (p. 735)

8. “In Jesus Christ He has chosen man from all eternity as His own, for life in His kingdom, to be a member of His people, His possession.” (p. 736)

Bonus quote: “At the beginning of all theological perception, research, and thought—and also of every theological statement—stands a quite specific amazement. Its lack in even the best theologian will threaten the heart of the entire enterprise, while even bad theologians are not a lost cause in their service and their duty, as long as they are still capable of amazement.” (Insights P. 3)

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Faith and Doubt (Friends or Foes?)

Faith and DoubtCan faith doubt, and doubt have faith? Are faith and doubt mutually exclusive?

According to the way many Christians understand faith, the answer is no. For most today, faith is opposed to doubt and doubt is opposed to faith.

But is this really so?

I read this week a great book by Paul Tillich entitled Dynamics of Faith.  What does Tillich have to say in this regard? In this enlightening book, Paul Tillich disagrees whole heartedly that faith and doubt are mutually exclusive. Instead, he argues just the opposite. Faith and doubt are inclusive. 

For Tillich, faith is not “belief”, nor is it “trust”. Often, these two words are used to define faith for the modern day thinker. When someone says they have faith they often mean “belief” or “trust”. “I have faith in God” then really means “I believe/trust in God”.

“Let faith overcome your doubts” is a commonly expression. But if faith is more than simply trusting in or having belief in an object, this saying should be rethought. While faith may include belief and trust, perhaps it is not exhausted by these terms. Rather, belief and trust come as the by-product of faith.

So what is faith? Tillich defines faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned.” 1  He further writes that “an act of faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped and turned to the infinite.” 2

This understanding of faith as “ultimate concern” radically changes the nature of our original question. If faith is the ultimate concern of an individual, that which he is concerned with his entire being about, then faith is not opposed to doubt. And in fact, this ultimate concern for the infinite (faith) must include an element of uncertainty, and therefore of doubt. For the element of uncertainty comes into faith in that faith is an event which takes place between an infinite being and a finite being (between God and man). “Faith is uncertain so far as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being.” Writes Tillich. 3 The nature of faith is between that which is finite and fallible (human beings), and that which is infinite and infallible, (God). It therefore includes an element of uncertainty to it.

This element of uncertainty in faith cannot be removed, it can only be accepted. Therefore, faith is never without doubt. 

The converse too is equally true. Doubt is never without faith because doubt is the confirmation of faith. If faith is the state of being ultimately concerned, then doubt confirms this ultimate concern in that it takes seriously the object of its concern.

Faith includes doubt, and doubt confirms faith! Faith and doubt are therefore not mutually exclusive of one another, but quite the contrary. Faith and doubt are mutually inclusive. Faith includes doubt and doubt includes faith. Polar opposites they are not.

When faith is defined as the belief in an object or set of facts, then faith is opposed to doubt. But, as Tillich argues, when faith is defined properly as the state of being ultimately concerned then doubt is included in that concern and is indeed necessary to its existence. Faith and doubt are then not opposite acts, but co-dependent acts.

After reading Tillich’s book I began another which also discusses faith and doubt, this is, the famed novel, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. One of the major themes presented by Dostoyevsky in this novel is the battle of faith and doubt. Faith and doubt are presented in opposition to one another throughout the book.

This fact represents the general problem in our contemporary understanding of the nature of faith and doubt. When we think of faith, we think of belief. But this leads to an error which asserts that faith and doubt are exclusive of each other. When understood properly however, faith as ultimate concern negates this error and makes peace with doubt to such an extent that doubt is welcomed back into the definition of faith itself.

This change in definition is one I’ve pondered quite a lot since finishing Tillich’s book last week. What does this re-defing of faith mean for Christianity?

Could we begin again to take seriously our honest doubts about God, the bible, and the doctrines of the church without fearing excommunication or slander? Could we learn to be honest with each other, to stop wearing masks of perfection? If faith includes doubt, the church should become the most honest place in the world. It could become a place for the masses to voice concerns, and to share honest reflections without the fear of “loosing your salvation” or getting kicked out of church! Doubt should be permitted—even encouraged, if Tillich is correct about this re-definition of faith. This could drastically change the dynamic of Christian life as we know it today.

What other problems might this solve which we face in our society? Could the creation/evolution debate finally be put to rest? Could Atheists and Christians sit down together and share their honest doubts and take courage in their unified concern?

Perhaps all this is possible if we redefine faith in such a way. It seems to me to be a step forward for the church. In a post-enlightenment, post-kantian era of faith, perhaps Tillich is onto something drastic and revolutionary. Faith and doubt just may cease the present feud and reconcile!

What do you think?

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Notes:

  1.  Dynamics of Faith P. 1
  2. Ibid. P. 16
  3. Ibid. P.16

7 Theories of the Atonement Summarized

Atonement theoriesThe nature of the Atonement has been a study for me over the last few years. After having my world turned upside by Dr. C. Baxter Kruger in his book, Jesus and the Undoing of AdamI have not been able to shake this fascination with rediscovering the cross of Jesus Christ. Today I wanted to share seven of the major theories for the Atonement. These theories attempt to explain the nature of Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did Jesus die? What does this death mean for the world today? These theories are historically the most dominant, and I hope you enjoy learning some of them today!

#1 The Moral Influence Theory

One of the earliest theories for the atonement is the Moral Influence theory, which simply taught that Jesus Christ came and died in order to bring about a positive change to humanity. This moral change comes through the teachings of Jesus alongside His example and actions. The most notable name here is that of Augustine from the 4th century, whose influence has almost single-handedly had the greatest impact upon Western Christianity. He affirmed the Moral Influence theory as the main theory of the Atonement (alongside the Ransom theory as well).

Within this theory the death of Christ is understood as a catalyst to reform society, inspiring men and women to follow His example and live good moral lives of love. In this theory the Holy Spirit comes to help Christians produce this moral change. Logically, in this theory the Eschatological development too becomes about morality, where it is taught that after death the human race will be judged by their conduct in life. This in turn creates a strong emphasis on free will as the human response to follow Jesus’ example. Although Augustine himself differs here in that he did not teach free will, but instead that human beings are incapable of change themselves, and require God to radically alter their lives sovereignly through the Holy Spirit.

This theory focuses on not just the death of Jesus Christ, but on His entire life. This sees the saving work of Jesus not only in the event of the crucifixion, but also in all the words He has spoken, and the example He has set. In this theory the cross is merely a ramification of the moral life of Jesus. He is crucified as a martyr due to the radical nature of His moral example. In this way the Moral Influence theory emphasizes Jesus Christ as our teacher, our example, our founder and leader, and ultimately, as a result, our first martyr.

#2 The Ransom Theory

The Ransom Theory of the Atonement is one of the first major theories for the Atonement. It is often held alongside the Moral Influence Theory, and usually deals more with the actual death of Jesus Christ, what it actually means and the effect it has upon humanity. This theory finds its roots in the Early Church, particularly in Origen from the 3rd century. This theory essentially teaches that Jesus Christ died as a ransom sacrifice, paid either to Satan (the most dominate view), or to God the Father. Jesus’ death then acts as a payment to satisfy the debt on the souls of the human race, the same debt we inherited from Adam’s original sin.

The Ransom view could be summarized like this:

“Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall’ hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.” 1

Redemption in this theory means to buy back, and purchase the human race from the clutches of the Devil. The main controversy here with this theory is the act of paying off the Devil. Some have written that this is not a fair statement to say that all Ransom Theorists believe that the Devil is paid, but rather in this act of Ransom Christ frees humanity from the bondage of sin and death. In this way Ransom relates the Christus Victor theory. But it’s worth differentiating here because in one way these views are similar, but in another way they are drastically different.

#3 Christus Victor

Classically, the Christus Victor theory of Atonement is widely considered to be the dominant theory for most of the historical Christian Church. In this theory, Jesus Christ dies in order to defeat the powers of evil (such as sin, death, and the devil) in order to free mankind from their bondage. This is related to the Ransom view with the difference being that there is no payment to the devil or to God. Within the Christus Victor framework, the cross did not pay off anyone, but defeated evil thereby setting the human race free.

Gustaf Aulen argued that this theory of the Atonement is the most consistently held theory for church history, especially in the early church up until the 12th century before Anslem’s satisfaction theory came along. He writes that “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.” 2 He calls this theory the “classic” theory of the Atonement. While some will say that Christus Victor is compatible with other theories of the Atonement, others argue that it is not. Though I have found that most theologians believe that Christus Victor is true, even if it is not for them the primary theory of Christ’s death.

#4 The Satisfaction Theory (Anselm)

In the 12th century Anselm of of Canterbury proposed a satisfaction theory for the Atonement. In this theory Jesus Christ’s death is understood as a death to satisfy the justice of God. Satisfaction here means restitution, the mending of what was broken, and the paying back of a debt. In this theory, Anselm emphasizes the justice of God, and claims that sin is an injustice that must be balanced. Anselm’s satisfaction theory says essentially that Jesus Christ died in order to pay back the injustice of human sin, and to satisfy the justice of God.

This theory was developed in reaction to the historical dominance of the Ransom theory, that God paid the devil with Christ’s death. Anselm saw that this theory was logically flawed, because what does God owe satan? Therefore, in contrast with the Ransom theory, Anselm taught that it is humanity who owes a debt to God, not God to satan. Our debt, in this theory, is that of injustice. Our injustices have stolen from the justice of God and therefore must be paid back. Satisfaction theory then postulates that Jesus Christ pays pack God in His death on the cross to God. This is the first Atonement theory to bring up the notion that God is acted upon by the Atonement (i.e. that Jesus satisfies God).

#5 The Penal Substitutionary Theory

Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a development of the Reformation. The Reformers, Specifically Calvin and Luther, took Anselm’s Satisfaction theory and modified it slightly. They added a more legal (or forensic) framework into this notion of the cross as satisfaction. The result is that within Penal Substitution, Jesus Christ dies to satisfy God’s wrath against human sin. Jesus is punished (penal) in the place of sinners (substitution) in order to satisfy the justice of God and the legal demand of God to punish sin. In the light of Jesus’ death God can now forgive the sinner because Jesus Christ has been punished in the place of sinner, in this way meeting the retributive requirements of God’s justice. This legal balancing of the ledgers is at the heart of this theory, which claims that Jesus died for legal satisfaction. It’s also worth mentioning that in this theory the notion of inputed righteousness is postulated.

This theory of the Atonement contrasts with Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory in that God is not satisfied with a debt of justice being paid by Jesus, but that God is satisfied with punishing Jesus in the place of mankind. The notion that the cross acts upon God, conditioning Him to forgiveness, originates from Anslems theory, but here in Penal Substitution the means are different. This theory of the Atonement is perhaps the most dominant today, especially among the Reformed, and the evangelical.

#6 The Governmental Theory

The Governmental Theory of the Atonement is a slight variation upon the Penal Substitutionary theory, which is notably held in Methodism. The main difference here is the extent to which Christ suffered. In the Governmental Theory, Jesus Christ suffers the punishment of our sin and propitiates God’s wrath. In this way it is similar to Penal Substitution. However, in the Governmental Theory, Jesus Christ does not take the exact punishment we deserve, He takes a punishment. Jesus dies on the cross therefore to demonstrate the displeasure of God towards sin. He died to display God’s wrath against sin and the high price which must be paid, but not to specifically satisfy that particular wrath. The Governmental Theory also teaches that Jesus died only for the church, and if you by faith are part of the church, you can take part in God’s salvation. The church then acts as the sort of hiding place from God’s punishment. This view contrasts both the Penal and Satisfaction models, but retains the fundamental belief that God cannot forgive if Jesus does not die a propitiating death.

#7 The Scapegoat Theory

The Scapegoat Theory is a modern Atonement theory rooted in the philosophical concept of the Scapegoat. Here the key figures Rene Girard and James Allison. Within this theory of the Atonement Jesus Christ dies as the Scapegoat of humanity. This theory moves away from the idea that Jesus died in order to act upon God (as in PSA, Satisfaction, or Governmental), or as payment to the devil (as in Ransom). Scapegoating therefore is considered to be a form of non-violent atonement, in that Jesus is not a sacrifice but a victim. There are many Philosophical concepts that come up within this model, but in a general sense we can say that Jesus Christ as the Scapegoat means the following. 1) Jesus is killed by a violent crowd. 2) The violent crowd kills Him believing that He is guilty. 3) Jesus is proven innocent, as the true Son of God. 4) The crowd is therefore deemed guilty.

James Allison summarizes the Scapegoating Theory like this, “Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not.”

Conclusions

Each theory presented here is dense and complex, but I hope you can learn from the overall focus of each. I personally believe that we need to move beyond some of these theories and progress into a more robust theory of the atonement. But thankfully, at the end of the day we aren’t saved by theories. We’re saved by Jesus! How that happens may be fun to discuss and theorized about, but only in sight of the fact that it’s the who that matters far more!

What do you think of all these theories? Does a certain one appeal to you more than the rest? Let me know in a comment!

Recommended reading

The following books are some of the best studies on the atonement I know and recommend for further reading:

Atonement, Justice, and Peace by Darrin W. Snyder Belousek (the best argument against penal substitution I’ve read)

The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge (excellent study on the cross for today’s world)

Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulén (a classic study of traditional atonement models)

Atonement: Person and Work of Christ by Thomas F. Torrance (great study by the renowned 20th century theologian)

The Nature of the Atonement by John McLeod Campbell (difficult reading, but historically an important text)

On the Incarnation by Athanasius (don’t let the title fool you: this is a profound text for the atonement in the early church)

Curs Deus Homo: Why God Became Man by Anselm (classic for the “satisfaction” atonement theory)

Against Heresies by Ireneaus (a great example of the atonement in the early church)

Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World by Rene Girard (for the scapegoat theory)

The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (one of the best modern works on the atonement)

Church Dogmatics IV/1 by Karl Barth (another modern classic on the atonement, famous for Barth’s notion of the “Judge judged in our place”)

The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (a decent collection of essays to give you a feel for various atonement theories)

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Notes:

  1. Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory 1995
  2. Christus Victor P. 20

Election and Reprobation

CopyA few weeks ago I finished reading Karl Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics, an earlier attempt at dogmatics which precedes the Church Dogmatics. In this volume I came away with many great insights, but one in particular has stuck with me in my thinking, that is, Karl Barth’s doctrine of Election and Reprobation. Prior to reading this volume I had a general concept of what Barth’s doctrine of predestination was, but this added more depth to what I understood. I’ve not yet read CD II where Barth deals with election exhaustively, and have only read bits and pieces of his doctrine in other works. This was then my first real introduction to that which lead me to Barth in the first place.

I started reading Karl Barth for two reasons. First, because I have a great amount of love for the theology of T.F. Torrance, who was a student and close friend of Barth. Second, and perhaps most of all, because of an interest in Barth’s doctrine of election which offered a theological alternative to both the harshness of Calvinism and the semi-pelagian-like beliefs of Arminianism (which was my background growing up). So today I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this. I’ll present these thoughts in what I feel are three important shifts in the thinking of Barth which will help you understand what election and reprobation means.

1. Jesus IS election

The brilliance of Barth’s theology is his christocentric approach. He is fully focused on Jesus Christ as the Word of God and the source of revelation. Barth was therefore very much against any notion of a God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Instead, Jesus Christ is the one in whom all theology must correspond to. We cannot do theology behind the back of Jesus Christ, we must think out our concepts about God only in the light of Jesus Christ.

This is true especially for election. Election is not a doctrine found in Romans 9, nor is it exclusively Pauline. The doctrine of election is centered around Jesus Christ the Son of God. John Calvin wrote that Jesus is the “mirror of election”. Barth Himself then writes, “Who is elect? Not the individual… Christ, that is, Christ …as the Head and Redeemer of the church.” 1 Therefore, for Barth, the important truth about Election is that it is not a doctrine abstracted from Jesus Christ, but rather found in Jesus Christ. Jesus is election.

2. Reprobation is for the sake of election (and therefore not eternal)

Another important aspect of Election is one that I had not heard from Barth before, but that has since caused me much joy in meditating upon it. In the light of Jesus Christ we cannot now say that there is no reprobation, to say so is to misunderstand Barth. His doctrine does not do away with the reprobate altogether. Instead, Barth refocuses reprobation in the light of Christ.

Reprobation, for Barth, is not an eternal decree in God. Only election is eternally in God. Therefore, reprobation is only rejection temporarily, for the sake of election. “Its point (predestination) and goal are always election, not rejection, even in rejection.” 2 “God alone is the cause of election” 3 And therefore, “In Him we know predestination primarily as election” 4 The reprobate are therefore not eternally damned by God, but only for the sake of eventual election. This is true in the wrath of God too. God has wrath only for the sake of healing our humanity. Wrath and reprobation do not exist for the sake of either, instead, they are in God for the sake of His love and dedication to the human race.

3. Election is not about individuals, but about God

As already quoted, for Barth, “God alone is the cause of election.” This means that election is not centered in the individual, but in God. If this is true, then predestination is not about God choosing individuals, one over another, but about God choosing all people in His Son Jesus Christ. “Who is elect? Not the individual…”

Predestination must move away from thinking through election and reprobation in terms of “certain people” but only in terms of Jesus Christ as the mirror of our election. Predestination for Barth is not about God choosing some over others, but of God choosing Jesus Christ and the human race in Him. This shift is important and has huge ramifications in theology, specifically in soteriology and the nature of God. This frees up the cross to be for all people, as scripture tells us, instead of only some within Calvinism. This also makes God not a harsh God who chooses some over another, but a God who loves all people. 

What do you think about Barth’s doctrine of Election and Reprobation? Is it an improvement on that of Calvin? Why or why not? Let me know in a comment!

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Notes:

  1. Göttingen Dogmatics, P. 463
  2. ibid p.460
  3. ibid. p.461
  4. ibid. p.471

“You are a Soul” C.S. Lewis Misquote & Gnostic Heresy

SoulC.S. Lewis is often quoted for saying, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This is actually a misquote however. It’s been proven that C.S. Lewis never said this. Although regardless of its origin, this quote attributed to Lewis gets shared quite a lot around social media with great enthusiasm from many Christians and non-Christians alike.

But this quote, whoever first said it, represents a failure in Christian theology. Fundamentally, this statement is rooted in gnostic philosophy and new age thinking. The notion that your earthly body is only a temporary shell is not a Christian idea at all. In fact, it is anti-Christian. This idea threatens the truth of a bodily resurrection (Jesus’ historical resurrection and our eschatological one), which is a grave error to make. This statement is the by-product of a Gnostic philosophy. 1 For the Gnostics, earthy matter was evil and spiritual matter was good. Therefore, the Gnostics rejected earthly pleasures by disciplining their bodies by strict abstinence and harsh punishments. Or, on the other hand, others treated earthly existence as futile and therefore, indulged in all sorts of corruption and immorality. Both ethical responses stem from a radical Dualism between that which is heavenly and that which is earthly. 2

Gnosticism is a heresy which ultimately denied Jesus’ physical existence, and in doing so, salvation itself. Gnostics trade a real human salvation for an abstractly “spiritual” one. Jesus therefore comes not to save human beings, but to save our spirits. The incarnation is thereby deemed unnecessary and false. All this spirals into a blatant disregard of creation and the negation of the Christian Gospel. In short, Gnosticism is a serious problem for theology and for the Gospel.

Yet thousands will share this quote, most of them Christians, with great enthusiasm, unknowingly taking part in promoting Gnosticism. Why? Unfortunately, I’m afraid it is because Gnosticism is alive and flourishing in the church today. We too, like the early Gnostics, have traded a real flesh and blood human salvation with a strictly platonic “spiritual” salvation somewhere off in heaven. Jesus, for many, did not come to save us as a human being, but rather to only give us access to a spiritual world apart from this reality, ie, “heaven”.

Many Christians today would be surprised to know how little the bible actually talks about heaven. Instead, the scriptures are far more concerned with heaven coming to earth, the kingdom of God manifesting here and not, along with a final bodily resurrection with the second coming of Jesus Christ. God in the end will not throw away the creation, He will resurrect it. He will make a “new heaven and new earth.” (Rev. 21:1)

God is not an anti-materialist. He is the original, material-loving God! He created the world after all, and He’s not quick to throw away what He’s made. Our bodies are not headed for destruction, nor are they merely a shell for metamorphosis. We are looking forward to a bodily resurrection in Christ when He comes again.

If I would restate the quote, I’d do it like this: “You are neither a soul, a mind, or a body in abstraction from the rest of you. You are a human being, and therefore, all of these things at once!”

So what do you think? Have you heard this quote before? What did you think of it?

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Notes:

  1. Gnosticism is one of the first heresies that came about during first centuries of Christianity.
  2. For more on Gnosticism see my video on it here.

The #CalvinismDebate: My Thoughts

#CalvinismDebateHello friends! I’m glad to be back from a month long blogging sabbatical. Today I’m interested in sharing a few of my thoughts on the Calvinism Debate (hosted by Zondervan) which took place on Wednesday night. This debate was filled with many great moments, a few not-so-great moments, and overall a lot of complex ways of addressing two very simple ideas.

The format of this debate went like this. There were two statements (called Propositions) about Calvinism. The first is against Calvinism, the second is for Calvinism. The host did a great job in choosing these statements because they certainly cut right to the heart of Calvinism. These two statements are: #1 “Calvinism necessitates unconditional predestination and unconditional predestination is incongruent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” In other words, unconditional election is contrary to the nature of Jesus Christ. #2 is “The cause of repentance and saving faith is not synergistic but monergistic.” In other words, how are we saved? Do we participate in our salvation (Synergistic) or is it solely the work of God done upon us (Monergistic)?

These two propositions were then debated by two men on each side of the debate. For Calvinism: Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. Against Calvinism: Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd. Therefore, DM and TP stood against position #1, yet for position #2. AF and BZ stood for position #1, and against position #2.

Here are the videos if you’d like to watch this for yourself (I personally enjoyed video 1 more than video 2, especially Brian Zahnd’s remarks)

Proposition #1:

Proposition #2: 

My Overall Thoughts:

I agree with statement #1 (I am therefore, against the Calvinists here), but I also agree with position #2 (I am therefore, for the Calvinists here). I condition my agreement of #2 on a limited basis. Those against position two, and therefore against the Calvinist position, made great points as well that I echo myself. However, I agree more with the Calvinists on that issue, but believe I have a solution to fix the complains against both Synergism and Monergism (thanks to Robert Capon!) But we’ll get to that. Here are my briefly explained positions on both unconditional election (position #1) and Monergism vs Syngergism (#2).

In position #1, I disagree whole heartedly with the doctrine of double predestination, and with it the whole Calvinistic system of sovereignty. For this I lean on Karl Barth for his much needed re-interpretation of the doctrine of Election. For Barth, Election is not a matter of God choosing one person for salvation over another person for damnation. Instead, Election is God choosing Jesus Christ for both election and reprobation. This plays a lot into Barth’s concept of the election of Israel and how that foreshadows the Election of Jesus Christ. This is certainly a far to complex thing to cover here. But to say one thing I will say that for Barth, and I agree with him here, Election is not, because it has never been, about God choosing one person instead of another. For Barth, Election is God choosing one individual nation or person for the sake of the whole world. This is then a vicarious form of election.

When we then look at Jesus, He becomes the Elect One who is chosen not instead of everyone else, but for the sake of the entire cosmos. God excluded everybody from the salvation business except for one Man Jesus Christ, in order that He might include all of creation through this one man. This is essentially my position on double predestination. I disagree with Calvin, and prefer the adjustments made by Karl Barth.

As far as position #2 goes, things are a little bit more complicated. I found myself agreeing with both sides of the debate at times. This half of the debate was more difficult to decide a clear position for myself personally. I do agree with the Calvinistic position on Monergism, but at the same time I likewise agree with the denial of this in favor of Syngergism because of the robotic nature of Monergism. The analogy I believe Brian Zahnd used was that in Monergism, God dances with a mannequin. He takes no risk in wooing us to Himself. He forces us to dance, thereby risking nothing at all in the process. This echoes C.S. Lewis’ brilliant remarks that “to love it all is to be vulnerable.” So I find myself struggling to balance between the two. Both positions had clear scriptural proofs, and both had great theological principles at play.

It wasn’t until I thought it through in the light of the works of Robert Capon that I finally came to a conclusion. Robert Capon brilliantly offers a solution to this in part three of his book Between Noon and Three. (An excellent book, by the way!) He writes similarly to Monergism, that we cannot come to God on our own efforts, but He must draw us to Himself. We therefore only come to Him dead with the promise that He will raise us to life again. However, where Capon differs in the execution of this raising from the dead. For Capon, who is not a Calvinist, he did not have to work around a doctrine of limited atonement. He therefore is able to say that in Christ all people have died and have raised to life. He therefore affirms the Monergistic approach in saying that it is only if God calls you that you can come into the kingdom. Yet, he also helps with the Synergists in their position that the Monergistic God is a God who takes no risks.

Now this does not equal universalism for Capon. Instead here we have to play again on an analogy used in the debate. For Capon, all men and women have risen to new life by God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, all are at the “party” or “dance.” All are included in the work of Christ. Therefore, all are at the dance, all are in a sense “saved.” The difference—and this is important!—for Capon is that your inclusion into the party does not force you to enjoy the party. You are here, you are in the dance, but you are not forced to enjoy the party at all. You can sulk around and be a party pooper all you’d like. But you cannot change the fact that you have been included into the party by no merit of your own, solely through grace. This then for Capon is Eschatologically how he works in hell. Hell is for those who, while still at the party, choose to reject the party by not enjoying the party. This then Echoes C.S. Lewis’ remarks in the Great Divorce where he writes that hell is within heaven, but it is so small that it fits within the tiniest crack in the floorboard of heaven.

This then essentially sums up my position on both of these statements and of the overall debate. As I’ve written before, I would currently consider myself theologically inclined to the Neo-Orthodox or Barthian camp. This influences heavily my opinion of this debate. I do disagree with TULIP, and the overall thrust of Calvinism. However, there is also much I respect from the Reformed tradition (including Calvin Himself).

Specific Debate Comments:

The overall debate was interesting to watch. Both sides did a fairly good job at articulating their position within the limited amount of time. But just in closing I’ll mention a few of my favorite moments, and the moments I found the most ridiculous!

Favorite moments:

I really enjoyed just about everything that Brian Zahnd said. I read his book A Farewell to Mars and was stirred a great deal by it. I haven’t heard much else from him so this was really the first time I’ve ever heard him speak live. But I found his points very well thought out and well presented. He had a clear scholarly approach that I appreciated. I found especially the calvinists lacked this same approach. As a whole, the Calvinists mainly kept repeating “this is what is true, who are you to question God?” Although no entirely…

A few quotes then that I enjoyed:

“On the cross we see a God who would rather die than give sinners what they deserve.” – AF

“You can make the case that Calvinism is biblical, but I don’t think you can make the case that Calvinism is beautiful” – AF

“Calvinism confuses the election of Israel for the election of an individual for salvation.” – BZ

“If God created just one sentient being for the sole purpose of damning that person to hell, I would tell that god that he was immoral. And if that god condemned me to hell for my actions, I would console myself through the ceaseless ages of agony with this one comfort: I told the truth.” – BZ

“A plain reading of Paul?!” – BZ (in response to DM)

Most ridiculous moment:

By far the most ridiculous moment had to have been Daniel Montgomery’s statement about a “plain reading of Paul.” Here we are debating Calvinism, and so far, the logic is flowing great, when all of a sudden someone pulls the classic “it’s just in the bible, read it!” as if that’s not what we’ve been doing this entire time. This is a typical move though for the unlearned in theology, although I doubt Daniel is unlearned, which is partially what makes the remark so hilarious! As a theologian, the last thing you should say is that people need a “plain reading of Paul.” Brian’s response to this was brilliant.

Conclusion:

I guess for a conclusion I would say that I hope we find a way beyond both Calvinism and Armenianism, alike. For this I hope we can adopt the revolutionary ideas of Karl Barth, and with him T.F. Torrance, N.T. Wright, and Robert Capon.

Did any of you watch the debate? What were your thoughts/favorite moments/conclusions? Let me know with a comment! :)

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Boasting in Orthodoxy

Boasting“He who boasts of his orthodoxy sins against justification by Christ alone, for he justifies himself by appeal to the truth of his own beliefs.”

– Thomas F. Torrance 1

The term “orthodoxy” gets used and misused a lot in Christianity today. A common label to throw around is that of “heresy”, warning others of what is wrong. But what is orthodoxy? That’s where so many theological camps differ from each other. One persons orthodoxy is another’s heresy.

An error in all this would be the assumption that orthodoxy is a set thing, not a fluid system. Orthodoxy cannot mean stagnant dogmatics. Orthodoxy, whatever it is, must be a fluid and mobile thing, because the way of Jesus is a journey, not a destination. We have not arrived, and the notion of stagnant orthodoxy implies that we have.

Orthodoxy, whether its protestant, catholic, or greek, undermines the justification of Christ alone when it becomes rigid, hard, and in opposition to the movement of Christ. Jesus is on the move, orthodoxy cannot hold Him down, and we must move with Him. This is not to say that truth is relative, but that the practical application of truth is always in question. We must not become rigid in our “orthodoxy” to the extent that we exclude all the possibility of movement or change. The moment we stop learning, growing, and exploring Christ is the moment we become a history museum, no longer a part of the River of Life.

In Christian theology, the attempt to discredit another because of “heresy” becomes irrelevant when you see orthodoxy in this light. I have found myself on a few occasions labeled a “heretic” to some, but at the same time “orthodox” to others. At the root of the issue, both orthodoxy and heresy are terms that, when divorced from the continual movement of the Spirit, can become stumbling blocks to the Justification of Christ alone.

We are not justified by our orthodoxy. We are not justified by our proper theology, or our good beliefs. We are therefore also not condemned by our heresy, or our bad beliefs. There are examples of those who have passionately said that you cannot be a “real” Christian if you deny this, that, or the other. In a protestant sense, many say that denying the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement means that you are not a “real” “born again” Christian. 2

But I for one am glad to know that my theology does not save me. I am justified by Jesus Christ alone. I may not be “orthodox” to you, but my rightness or my wrongness does not make me more or less justified before God. Orthodoxy cannot be a claim for justification. We cannot attempt to justify ourselves by our Orthodoxy without first undermining the justification of Christ.

In plain terms, relax. Theology is fun. Theology is a fluid thing. Let’s continually grow, ask questions, and seek truth, together as a family. That sometimes means questioning our presupposed “orthodoxy.” Relax because disagreement is okay. In many ways, disagreement is healthy. It means that critical thinking is taking place. We are a family, and sometimes disagreement means that the family is alive. 

At the end of the day, not one can boast in their orthodoxy. Neither will anyone be condemned for their heresy. We are justified by Jesus Christ alone, not our theology about Him. It is Jesus Christ the living and active person who is our justification.

So what do you think? Have you ever felt this way when it comes to orthodoxy? Comment below!

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Notes:

  1. Reality & Evangelical Theology, 149
  2. For example, this video makes that claim

10 Ways to Get More Out of Your Bible

10 BibleEvery Christian reads the bible, but not every Christian reads it well. The bible can be a complex book at times. Few take the time or give the bible the attention it deserves. Here then are ten tips to help you navigate what is, in my opinion, the most read, yet least understood book on the planet.

#1 Hold Truth in Tension

The bible is written in a paradox. Not because it is purposefully trying to confuse the reader, but because of the object of it’s witness. The bible itself does not contain truth, it gives witness to The Truth, the Word of God, Jesus Christ. It therefore gives witness to a reality, a person, Who is far beyond our comprehension. The bible therefore speaks in paradox because it keeps at its center the fact that God is not a stagnant being or a book we read. God is living and active, and therefore, God is free and unbound by our concepts.

Therefore, the bible, in giving witness to the eternal God, is a paradoxical book because it seeks to grasp at the diversity in the heart of God. God is free, and in His freedom He is not understood so simply as to be made into a list of attributes or actions. The bible is a book of tension. There are two sides to truth in the scriptures, don’t be quick to drop one side of that tension in favor of the other. Hold truth in tension. 1

#2 Keep Christ Central

The bible, in and of itself, is useless if it does not lead you to Jesus. The person of Christ should be therefore central to all of the scriptures. Whenever you read the bible, read it with Jesus at the forefront of your mind. For example, you cannot read the Old Testament without keeping the proper context. The context is always Jesus. He is the ultimate reality that the bible gives witness to. He is at the center of the bible. Keep Christ central every time you read the bible. Don’t read the bible behind the back of Jesus, trying to discover truth that is somehow “higher” then the person of Christ. Read the bible in a strictly Christocentric way. Jesus is the Word of God, He is what the Father has to say to the human race. The bible is not the Word of God, but it gives witness to the Word. Therefore, read the bible with the presupposition of meeting the Divine Word in human words. 2

#3 Don’t Take it Literally

Reading the bible in English, 2,000 years divorced from culture, language, and history, and thinking that this is an effective way to understand the bible, is just plain ridiculous. Don’t take the bible so literally. There are many factors to consider before you make any judgements about what the bible is trying to say. Don’t forget the fact that when you read the bible in english, you are reading it far removed from the culture or the original audience. The bible isn’t originally written to you. Paul never wrote his letters with the intention of the church reading it for 2,000 years. Many of the books in the bible can’t be taken so literally simply because they are not written for us today. They are still true, and they still have value in teaching us about the culture and society of Israel and the coming of Christ. But to read the bible now, 2,000 years later, and to take it literally is a bad idea.

A sad example of where this can go wrong is in the countless stories of those who have used the bible, taking it literally, to kill, promote slavery, and discriminate against others. The bible in the hands of a literalist is a dangerous book that promotes sexism, slavery, and the murder of Homosexuals. 3 It’s important not to take the bible literally, but to take time to understand the culture, language, and history of the bible before you make any judgements.

#4 Study Historical Context

What happened in 70 Ad? What took place in Israel’s history between 607-586 BC? Studying the history that stands behind the scriptures is crucially important in understanding the bible itself. Without knowing the history behind the bible, it would be like trying to read a letter written from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Adolf Hitler without knowing what took place during World War II. Knowing what is taking place in the history of Israel gives insight into the Prophetic books, the Psalms, and the Old Testament Literature. The same is true for the New Testament writings. Without knowing the widespread persecution, the coming destruction of the temple, and other events in the early church you may easily misunderstand the writings of Paul. Understanding history is important to understanding this historical document we call the bible. The bible is firmly rooted in history, and it would be an error to remove it from that history.

#5 Read Multiple Translations

Reading many different translations has been helpful for me personal. It helps me in two ways. First, to find more enjoyment out of my bible reading. It makes it interesting to read many different translations, comparing the translations in order to dive deeper into the texts. Bible reading gets stagnant and boring if you read only one translation for years. Expanding your translation library can bring new life to your reading. Second, owning multiple translations gives me the ability to see many different perspectives on the text. If it’s either a paraphrase, a literal translation, or a thought for thought translation, there are many schools of thought in how to read the bible. Therefore, each translation offers a unique perspective on the bible. Comparing multiple translations is useful in grasping the bible better. 4

#6 Listen to Theology

C.S. Lewis writes that “if you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones—bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas.” 5 Theology is a form a repentance because Theology means changing your mind and changing the ways you think about God. Therefore, theology is essential in our thinking about God. Everyone has a theology, but few take the time to examine or refresh their theology. It’s important to be continuously learning and growing in God, and one of the best ways to do that is by listening to great theology. Some of my favorite theologians to listen to are C. Baxter Kruger, Karl Barth, and T.F. Torrance. Theology has a way of refreshing your outlook on the bible, and helping you see things that you may have missed before.

#7 Study Church History

For 2,000 years the church has collectively read, studied, and thought through many of the ideas regarding the scriptures and the God of the scriptures. This conversation is one that we today get to join in. It is freeing to know that Christianity is an ongoing conversation about faith. It means that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but that faith is a conversation that has been happening for centuries. We can learn from the church fathers, and the many theologians throughout history. To ignore church history would be to ignore our heritage as believers. We are not alone in this journey, we have saints both today and in the past who have walked beside us in this journey in discovering God. 6 Read old books by the men and women throughout our history who have made a notable impact on Christianity. For example, read the early church fathers like Athanasius, Basil, Hilary, and Augustine. Also read the reformers like Calvin and Luther, or the medieval theologians like Anselm or Bernard of Clairvaux.

#8 Keep Books in Their Place

The bible is a collection of books that fit into certain specific categories. It ranges from poetic books, to historical books, to letters, to apocalypse literature; to Gospel accounts. It is important to keep the books of the bible in their proper context. You wouldn’t read a fiction book like a non-fiction book would you? You wouldn’t read Harry Potter as if Hogwarts were actually a real place, and the stories were true? It’s important to do the same with the books of the bible. Keep the specific genres and intended audiences in their proper place. Don’t read Paul like you read David. David wrote poetic Psalms that expressed emotion, prophecies, and prayers. Paul wrote to explain theology, to encourage the church, and to instruct. You can’t read one like the other. Read the bible in its proper context as a collection of books that fit within certain categories. Take the time to study the audience of each book, and the context in which they are written.

Additionally, read books, not verses. The bible is meant to be grasped as a whole, not as single verses divorced from the rest of the bible. Read whole letters of Paul, not just verses or chapters. Take the bible as a whole, not in part.

#9 Embrace Mystery

Im-Reading-The-Bible_o_92193Be okay with saying “I don’t know” in the face of difficult texts. Don’t feel like you have to understand everything that is being said. Oftentimes I read passages in the bible that confuse me, I am okay with saying I don’t understand everything. It is far better to say that you don’t know something then to pretend that you do know something. You will make errors any time you try to force an interpretation instead of allowing for mystery. Embrace mystery in the bible and be okay with the unknown. Don’t try to remove mystery for the sake of understanding. You will often end us with cheap answers, or bad theology.

# 10 Don’t Be Dogmatic, Be Fluid

Don’t be stuck in a system that does not allow for questioning and searching for truth. Don’t give into dogma that denies the movement of progress in theology. Don’t get stuck into a system to claims to be perfect, and rejects anyone who disagrees with it without having a conversation with them. Nothing is above questioning. The truth remains truth in the face of all questioning, and in fact is strengthened when challenged. So if it is really true, your questions will not harm it. Don’t be dogmatic, or feel satisfied with cheap answers to hard questions. Always learn, always grow, always progress deeper into the endless depths of God’s truth.

Conclusions

Reading the bible can be a joy as much as it can be a frustration. It’s both difficult and worthwhile to take the time to explore the bible and read it well. I hope these brief tips can help you find new life in the bible, and new joy in your journey with God.

Any tips you would add? Let me know in a comment below!

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Notes:

  1. Here’s an example.
  2. A favorite quote of mine from Jurgen Moltman: “I read the bible with a presupposition to meet the Divine Word in human words.”
  3. See this article on Biblcalism
  4. Here are a few translations I recommend
  5. Mere Christianity
  6. I’ve written some along these lines here.

My Shadow Days Are Over: Rethinking Total Depravity

shadow daysAre people good? Or are people bad? 

It seems like a simple question until you get into it. Christian Theology often talks about “original sin” and “total depravity” in regards to what took place after the fall of Adam in Eden. We say that since Adam fell in the garden, the human race fell into sin and evil.

Growing up in a Christian church my whole life I was a borderline fundamentalist at times, and therefore I wouldn’t have seconded guessed this question for a minute. I would have said right away that humanity is bad. 

There’s no question as to whether mankind can do bad things, but it’s more about asking ourselves: are we really inherently evil? 

Theologically, there are different positions on this. Total depravity is one of the five points of calvinism. Total depravity is also held in Arminian theology, but to a lesser degree then calvinism. Depending on who you ask definitions of this term will differ.

Some will say that because mankind is totally depraved, we desire that which is evil over that which is good. Therefore, total depravity is a pull towards evil, and a rejection of good. (i.e. the in ability to choose God, in Calvinism)

Within this definition, while there may be good acts, fundamentally human beings are evil and sinful to their core. There is nothing good in them, although they try and cover up their sin with good works.

I think the best argument I’ve read against this notion of total depravity comes from St. Paul in Romans 7. I was reading through Romans 7 one day trying to figure out who Paul is talking about (his present self vs. his former self), when it dawned on me that if he is talking about his former self, he is also making a clear case against total depravity.

Romans 7 essentially is where Paul makes statements about himself as someone who desires to do good, but remains unable to do good. This chapter is often used to talk about how Christians have a dual nature, that of sinner and saint, but as I’ve written here and here I don’t think a Christian has two natures.

Therefore, this leaves us with the conclusion that Paul is talking about his former way of life. So when we read statements like this, we need to rethink some things: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” 1

If this is a pre-Christ Paul, then total depravity is not as we once thought. Mankind is still good, desiring good things, yet unable under the law to perform them.

I do believe that sin has corrupted our nature, but I don’t think sin has ruined our nature. I’ve been rethinking the doctrine of total depravity lately, and so that’s where all this is coming from. I’m not trying to say that total depravity is wrong, but perhaps it’s not as true as we once thought?

Much of this started for me when I read an interesting statement about how Eastern Orthodoxy understands total depravity. Check it out:

The Orthodox tradition, without minimizing the effects of the fall, does not however believe that it resulted in a ‘total depravity’… The divine image in man was obscured but not obliterated. His free choice has been restricted in its exercise but not destroyed. Even in a fallen world man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him.

…The doctrine of original sin means rather that we are born into an environment where it is easy to do evil and hard to do good; easy to hurt others, and hard to heal their wounds; easy to arouse men’s suspicious, and hard to win their trust. 2

So if we go back to our original question, “are people good?” what should we say?

Perhaps the world isn’t evil?

Perhaps mankind really is good? Maybe we aren’t able to act on our goodness without the empowerment of grace?

I was thinking about all of this while walking home from work on day listen to John Mayer (which happens often). All of a sudden his song “Shadow Days” came on. It’s not my favorite song from John, but the chorus felt like a smack in the face from on High. It’s a challenge: are we able to look ourselves in the mirror, and say “I am good”?

Here are the chorus lyrics:

I’m a good man with a good heart
Had a tough time, got a rough start
But I finally learned to let it go
Now I’m right here, and I’m right now
And I’m open, knowing somehow
That my shadow days are over
My shadow days are over now

When you see yourself, can you see yourself as someone who is good?

I think it is important to. “I’m a good man with a good heart…”

When you see another human being, can you say that they are good? Even when they do bad things?

Can we see the goodness of God in all people, including ourselves?

It’s something I’ve been challenging myself with lately.

What do you think about “total depravity”? Am I on to something here? Leave me a comment below!

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Notes:

  1. Romans 7:19 ESV
  2. Met. Kallistos Ware on God as Creator’; The Orthodox Way [p. 62,63] seen here