We can do?

‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5) pretty much puts us in our place!! Of course that has a context so I am going to press some other directions as to our ‘place’.

The original Genesis pictures are of some measure of delegation of authority to humanity with respect to the earth, which is re-iterated in, for example, Psalm 115:16

The highest heavens belong to the Lord.
But he has given the earth to human beings.

The freaky part would be if in this aspect of delegation there was an inevitable limitation that God embraced. For me this makes sense at every level. The ensuing conflict and hostility is not between God and the serpent but between the seed of the serpent and the seed of woman. This is followed through with the Incarnation (born of a woman) who comes at a time of fullness to ‘destroy the works of the devil’. This overcoming is seen in the wilderness time of trial, and in particular at the cross. There seems a good basis to suggest the wilderness was with regard to the effective kingdom expression in the context of the remnant of Israel (the 12 + wider community of disciples), so that through the cross there can be a declaration of the kingdom throughout the inhabited earth.

Can God do nothing without us? This does not seem to be the case as from the beginning s/he enters the world of Eden, later we read of the protection of Cain, so s/he is not totally on the outside looking in. In Isaiah 59:16 we read

He sees that there is no one who helps his people.
He is shocked that no one stands up for them.
So he will use his own powerful arm to save them.
He has the strength to do it because he is holy.

It is probably hard to go to the extreme that there is no intervention from heaven, but it is probably possible to hold that there are certain interventions that do not take place without invitation, and that the norm is for divine intervention to follow human invitation.

It would seem to me that the issue Jesus came to settle was the restoration of humanity to their appointed place. His claim to having received all authority has the (implied) consequence that this authority has been released also for those who ‘go’.

In these posts that are exploring the conceptual elements of time, timelessness etc., the real issues are ‘so what…’ If there is traction in what I am suggesting then I think there are at least two key implications.

1) how the body of Christ positions herself with regard to the world is very key. If it is ‘rule over’ I cannot see that as embracing the cruciform path. It needs to be one of servant to the world so that the outworkings of the cross (the ‘it is finished’ part) can be seen in evidence in the world. Where the body of Christ does not follow this path, perhaps the resulting problems could be greater as a result.

2) the invitation to God to intervene becomes one of the key roles for the body of Christ. Prayer, but intercession at the deepest level of positioning then would be very key. Standing between what is and what is to come would be the requirement.

If we place this again in an eschatological setting we can hold that the age to come breaking in fullness is not dependent on a future calendar date but to a fullness of contribution that the body of Christ has made.

All in all, for me makes sense of the apparent lack of interventions from heaven; presents a challenge to discover ‘what do you want me to do?’ and ‘how do you want me to live?’. Then getting the balance of we are not created as workers but as companions to the God of heaven is important, because it is certainly not down to us in the sense of performance. Work without relationship is not going to be the way forward.

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God can do

It always sounds right to say that God is omnipotent and there is therefore nothing s/he cannot do. This becomes more problematic (morally) when it is suggested that God can do whatever s/he chooses simply because s/he is God: a might is right approach. Maybe less of an issue when that viewpoint is hidden behind such things being a mystery as to why God makes the choices s/he makes (predestination). While accepting that there are mysteries an over-appeal to that element does not sit well with me as in Jesus God becomes knowable. When the suggestion is that God can do something simply because s/he is God it might seem to elevate the otherness of God but makes this God unknowable. In Jesus this God who created and sustains all things is strangely more like one of us than not. So let’s get into this.

Omnipotence is a necessary affirmation that there is no ‘god’ greater than God, and that there are no limitations of power, however it cannot be taken to mean God can do whatever. There are the well known logical fallacies (can God make a four sided triangle, can s/he make a rock larger than s/he can lift) that are kind of fun to play with, but the more critical issues, though, surround questions of morality, with the very real question of ‘If God has all power why does s/he not stop suffering’. To suggest that s/he cannot stop suffering can sound as if that is a denial of omnipotence, but even Scripture is clear that the first line of defence of God is not one of omnipotence for we read: ‘God cannot deny himself’.

God is love, which is a stronger statement than God loves, and if we need to affirm that love is a choice maybe we have to go to a ‘love is an eternal choice’ by God. That kind of God-love is defined as a pouring out of life for others, even love that embraces the other, and that s/he cannot do anything that is not love. That love is not sentimental nor weak, but we can be totally assured that all s/he does is consistent with love. We have every reason therefore to trust totally in God.

So far I think no level of controversy there. It is when we push this into the realms beyond that it gets interesting. So:

Are there areas where God cannot intervene without our invitation (prayer being one way)? If I understood Oord (Uncontrolling Love) correctly he would be suggesting this. We could read that as ‘God is powerless to stop…’ which would be very insulting to those from a certain theological background, or we could understand this as ‘we can co-operate with God to change situations’. Certainly if we are not willing to travel any distance on that road we will find that defending God with regard to the problem of evil becomes more difficult. The free-will argument is surely necessary, what Oord has done is to push it further with God does not and will not control.

This, in simple terms, challenges us to determine whether love is the primary determining characteristic through which God is expressed and is known, or whether we resort to God is bigger than all other beings and it is power that is the primary expression of God’s own being.

I suggest then that there is only limited value in claiming ‘omnipotence’ for God, rather to claim love as being the core of God’s being is what we must focus on, which will put limitations on how we express the omnipotence of God. Indeed omnipotent language might prove to have limited usefulness, and unless we were to qualify what we meant with the word ‘omnipotent’ we could find that the word actually distorts the image of God.

Now if God has given freedom to humanity the issue of absolute foreknowledge is also raised – another post, another day. However, a post before that I think needs to explore the necessity of our invitation or co-operation for God to intervene.

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When was the beginning?

God, time, timelessness, God created time, time is in God, God made room for creation… theo-philosophical questions which we probably cannot give a final answer to. I suggested in an earlier post that the idea of God living in an ‘eternal now’ presents so many more difficulties than the simple view we have in Scripture that s/he lives with creation, that past events (e.g. the Exodus) are past events for God and future events (e.g. the parousia) are future events also for God. The Scriptures also affirm that God is not to be identified with creation. S/he is separate from creation. It does though beg the question of when was ‘the beginning of creation?’

There is nothing intrinsic within Scripture to suggest that creation as we have it was ex-nihilo. ‘In the beginning’ can indicate a ‘when God began creating’ and that he worked on stuff that was already there: ‘surface of the deep’, ‘without form and empty’. We also have a major issue as to what sense we can make of ‘God as creator’ if there was (a time verb) when there was no creation. It is almost as bizarre as claiming to be an artist but to have never picked up a brush, canvas and sought to produce something.

The Scriptural stories are to teach truth, not a set of facts. Truth transcends facts. So I do not find myself bound to believe there was a time when God created or that there was necessarily a historic day when humanity fell. Yes, I could be persuaded to believe that creation is eternal, or that what we term the universe is not the ‘first’ creation. We believe in an infinite God so there is no necessity to believe that this is the only universe that exists. However, it is the only universe that exists for us, and until we can master space travel, the planet we find ourselves on is the only planet for us, and the street where I live is the only street where I can live out a life of discipled integrity.

An eternal fall? Why not. Unless one feels obliged to take Gen. 1-3 as essentially literal we could take it as a comment on the history of humanity, falling short of the glory of God, choosing to believe a lie about God, refusing to live as s/he lives (within love boundaries) and seeking to consume whatever takes our fancy has produced the universal sickness called the bondage of sin. If we took it that way we would be thinking more about the sick needing healing, rather than the guilty needing forgiveness, though once healing was experienced at any level I think the automatic response would be ‘I have been guilty all these years of mis-representing God’.

So philosophically I am probably pretty much in the camp of creation is eternal, the fall is a statement of humanity’s bondage. Theologically I am very happy to affirm a beginning, the start of the project which has an end (in the sense of eschaton not telos). I am happy to say ‘we fell’ and without the second Adam are doomed.

I am also very happy to affirm that when we talk theology (God-talk) we don’t always know what we are talking about!

More to come – omnipotence and omniscience.

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God and time

It is so common to hear or read that ‘God is outside of time’, or in the more classical old-style theological way ‘the eternal now of God’. Language when applied to God is problematic, but this concept of time owes more to the influence of philosophy (Greek based) than to the Hebrew scriptures. This does not make it wrong in itself as to think about the issue and to decide that what we have in Scripture is language rather than a description of the reality is valid.

Timeless or temporal (but without beginning or end) are the two options. The first might sound more ‘God-like’, but I consider it runs up against numerous issues.

Personhood. God is described as a Being with thoughts, actions, emotions and interactions (and even of learning). All of which imply some measure of temporal sequence. Of course it could be that only we cannot conceive of personhood without time, and that the Scriptures record God in such ways simply because there is no other concept of personhood that we can relate to.

‘In the beginning’. The timeless view suggests that creation also includes the creation of time, and before this there was no time. Again, language has its limitations, but what does the word ‘before’ mean? The words of creation do not necessarily mean creation ex nihilo, but they do seem to attribute to God that he acted inside time. To suggest that God was existing as trinity and decided (‘when’ was the decision taken?) to create humanity to share life with and this was also the beginning of time seems to run up against so many difficulties as a concept.

The Incarnation. The eternal Logos became human. The Logos was not incarnated from all-eternity, there being a change within the Godhead at the Incarnation and for ever. Timelessness seems to me to suggest that the Incarnation would need to be an eternal situation rather than an eternal intention. So there is a very real change for the Trinity – a before Incarnation, a while incarnated on earth, and a post-resurrection but continuing incarnation. Timelessness necessitates that all events (from our perspective – past, present and future) are now all instantaneously occurring within the experience of God. Maybe that makes God sound awesome but in what sense can we say that the future has already been experienced (or more correctly is being experienced now) by God? The return of Christ, the ‘God will be all in all’, ‘his dwelling place will be with his people’ are all descriptions of a future event for us… and I suggest that those also have to be future experiences for God.

I appreciate there are some real difficulties in the issue of time and God. What would it mean that he lives in time? (I suspect that maybe we should be more profitably exploring that time is in God – therefore any creation has to exist in time.) It certainly would not mean that God grows old or decays, nor that s/he is growing in strength and wisdom, as if given another opportunity the next creation project would be better – though we do have the ‘God regretted he had…’ statements in Scripture.

So however challenging the philosophical nature of this discussion is, I find the concept of timelessness all-but impossible to embrace. There are difficulties with God in time – hence the concept of time being in God might be the way forward – but for me I have to lean heavily in this direction. There is a future for God as well as a future for creation that we (God and creation) are waiting for.

So we have to affirm there never was (a time word) when God was not, and there never will be when God will not be. S/he is not created, but has eternally existed, and will eternally exist. I can experience God by the Spirit today, but more remarkably I can equally be experienced by God today. There are no surprises to God in that relationship but I can certainly give pleasure to the One who redeemed me.

The present two-way relational experience is not dependent on our view of God and time, but seems more consistent with with the God of the Scriptures.

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Talking definitively about God

The huge advantage of the influence of Anabaptism is that by starting with a Christology we end up with a God who looks like Jesus. Any other ‘god’ is to be rejected. Now the counter from some quarters is the claim that the Christology being referred to is no more than a Jesus-ology, meaning it is drawn from 3 years of incarnated life rather than the eternal existence of the Logos. That does not convince me as the Jesus-ology gives us the essential and true character of God, who cannot act differently to how he is revealed in Jesus.

Yet regardless of how Christology affects our Theology there are questions that remain about the being of God, such as were raised by Oord’s book that I recently read and reviewed. So I want to touch on some of those in a few blogs. (After all it is February and time for some lighter issues to consider.)

  • God and time
  • God and creation (and fall)
  • God, freedom and foreknowledge
  • God and the eschaton.

And of course, although this site is called Perspectives, all thoughts here will be definitive and the final word on all the above – as if!! Yet that is how we can hold our beliefs in God at times. When Open Theology (the future is not fixed, but free-will agents shape the future) gained some traction with the publication of ‘The Openness of God’ there was a debate and a vote in ‘The Evangelical Theological Society’ as to whether those who subscribed to those views were to be allowed to continue as members.

Defining orthodoxy is increasingly difficult for many evangelicals as there has been a shift in how the definition of ‘evangelical’ works. In 1995 Robert Johnston gave a paper to ‘The American Theological Society’ entitled:

Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Problem for Modern Evangelicalism

(A modified copy can be found here in pdf format.)

In his presentation he suggested that there has been a move from a set of boundaries that once a person strayed outside of them they could be classed as a heretic, to using a core to define the term evangelical. At the core of the core (?) were how two questions were answered:

  • By what authority do you believe what you believe?
    Answer: the Scriptures
  • By what means is a person reconciled to God?
    Answer: through the cross of Christ.

Now we can perceive the issues that are raised. Scriptures: but which of the numerous canons do we mean when we use the term Scriptures? and the critical issue of our hermeneutic – after all we can defend (insist upon) slavery, subjection of women, beating the rebellious child etc. if our hermeneutic allows. We can also defend genocide – indeed we have to use a brave (and necessary) hermeneutic to get round some of those passages. And for most of us we have no effective hermeneutic, but simply a sub-conscious mental tippex (wite-out).

And the cross. We can affirm the above position as a ultra-Calvinist with only the elect being reconciled at the cross, or as a Universalist, and everything in between!

Hence the problem.

I can totally answer the above two questions in the affirmative, and so can carry the label of ‘evangelical’. If however, we were to continually add definitions to the term, my answers would probably go from ‘maybe’ to ‘I don’t think so’ to ‘No way’.

So if the original writers of ‘The Openness of God’ escaped the sword, but only just, I am confident that I have not strayed too far, but also affirm that we need to ask the deeper questions that do not shake our faith but push us toward a deeper trust in the God revealed in Jesus, rather than a dependence on our beliefs. Our beliefs are not the same as saving faith. So as I get time I shall be writing.

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Gates of society

I have written at times on what can be variously termed ‘gates’, ‘spheres’ and (one I object to) ‘mountains of influence’. Recently though I have been thinking again about these aspects. So first to note that language, with all its weaknesses, is important. Language carries concepts, hence the ‘mountain-type’ language I consider very unhelpful as it embeds the continuing belief of hierarchy and top-down change. It is not compatible with the kenotic / uncontrolling love of God.

I started this past week to think about the myth that we now have of the interdependence of the spheres. In the UK – and indeed much of Europe – there is a continuing wonderful health service available to one and all. Increasingly though this is being placed under threat and the response of junior doctors in the UK to the cuts that have been made to the NHS is more than understandable. Likewise, we see threats to education with an inevitable preferential treatment given to those from more privileged backgrounds.

Myth 1. The ‘gates of society’ are not as simple to define as interdependent spheres. Politics rules over, for example, the gates of education and health. We have an education minister and a health minister who shape up how the education and health spheres are developed. Some consultations are made, of course, but how much do those consultations shape the outcome? Ask the teacher in the classroom or the doctor / nurse in the hospital and hear what they think about the policies that they are instructed to implement.

Myth 2. The political sphere is not the top. But there is a top! Something is out of control. Take the payment of tax made by Google in the UK. When Mr. Corbyn asked on behalf of ‘Jeff’ in PM’s question time about the possibility of the individual coming to the government to make the same agreement about the level of tax to pay as Google had just done, the response revealed the situation. There was no effective response other than ‘we did better than former leaders of the house’.

So seems there is a hierarchy (particularly at the global level) with economics occupying the top seat. What if all institutional power needs a voice? Maybe politics is now fast becoming trapped in a double minded prison, seeking to reign in what is out of control, and yet defending it. (Consider the unusual symbiotic yet antagonistic relationship of the beast and the prostitute of Revelation.)

So what conclusions do I come to? Tentatively:

1) at the individual level we have to continue to move into the ‘spheres’, ‘gates’ (or whatever) in order to dismantle mountains – or at least hilltops!

2) we look to the truly uncontrollable areas such as the arts to disturb. Thanks Banksy!

3) we look to see a media that becomes free. (In Spain the majority of channels are controlled by the conservative government, with one channel being owned by a certain infamous Italian politician! In the UK just check the ownership of the press.) The underground press is increasingly important. And as we have been praying for a regeneration within the media, a new media, we have to ask as those shaped by a kingdom mentality, how we define ‘media’ (communication and language). Is it defined by what is or by its purpose?

4) we provoke democracy, not simply the democratic process. And by provoke we do that at whatever level is appropriate – and this has to include prayer to shift the mountains that are now eating democracy, often through the democratic process.

5) that we look for the voice of the street to rise. Untidy, not so articulate, but full of wisdom.

6) that we call for a new landscape while believing that there will be monumental shifts in the structures that have gone out of control. Wholesale collapse is not the way forward – we need to see low-level alternatives springing up.

The European project is rightly being challenged. The fault lines are becoming increasingly visible. There are signs of hope at grass roots, and the way of mercy has to be the way forward.

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Eschaton or ‘end’ (telos)

Just a short post exploring a possibility. The ‘eschaton’, with the concept of the ‘end’, the age to come etc., is the common word used to describe what is coming. Hence the events (many past) which will include Easter, Pentecost can be described as eschatological events. We then have in that wonderful chapter of 1 Cor. 15 such statements as ‘The last (eschatos) enemy to be destroyed is death’ and Jesus is describes as the ‘Last (eschatos) Adam’.

The word telos is also a word for end but more in terms of a goal to be attained to, so is there a significance that eschatos is used not telos?

Maybe it indicates that the eschatos is bringing all of creation not through to its ‘goal’ in the sense of final destination but to its place of fullness through which multiple ‘goals’ can be reached. Maturity might not be the finality but the removal of the potential to foul up the self-giving purposes of God, hence the list of ‘no mores’ when the ‘end’ (new beginning?) comes, and the burning up in the lake of fire of all that is oppressive.

Just a random thought.

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