God can be found in…

Seven Spirits of God… so John writes about, some suggest that this represents the seven archangels that come up in some Jewish literature, however I take it to be a way of speaking about the full manifestation of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. In Jewish monotheism the Spirit was a way of speaking about the presence and activity of the one true God, into Christian theology the Spirit became personal, with the Spirit being God, but distinct from the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’.

Irenaeus (130-200AD approx, bishop in Lyon) is the probable originator of the term ‘the two hands of God’: the Spirit being the universal ‘hand’ that was present everywhere and the Son being the particular hand that brought people to the Father. Thus we have the presence of God everywhere and yet it is through the Son that people come to the Father. The Spirit is present everywhere and it is that Spirit that believers receive, at which point we can name that one Spirit ‘the Spirit of Jesus’.

‘Universalism’ refers to a belief that ‘all will be saved’ but there certainly is a Universalism that relates to God in and through all things. Paul wonderfully affirms this (in a pagan context of idols to many gods)

[God] is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we, too, are his offspring.’

Paul’s suggests the unique claim for what he was proclaiming (call it the Christian faith) was that ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ If I update his words, he did not say that ‘Christians know God’, but that they know who this one God is, that there is a relationship, an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. This was what set Jesus apart, and also set him apart from Judaism, he was the way not to God, but to the Father, to a familial relationship to the one true God. That is an astounding claim! To seek to make an image of this God is futile as it holds that we can draw lines around God and present God… maybe some of our theology does just that? The invitation from Jesus means we expand, with all our ignorance, into the knowledge of God. Idolatry does just the opposite… maybe why Paul was (strangely) non-confrontational in Athens is that at least one of their altars seemed to represent that God was beyond their knowledge (‘the unknown god’).

I am going somewhere in this post!!

‘Saved from their sins’. That was according to Matthew what Jesus was going to do for the Jewish people. Not ‘saved from hell’. I think we focus too much on what we consider will happen ‘then’ rather than what is promised ‘now’. There is some talk of ‘wrath to come’ but some (most?) of it seems to historically fit with a context of earthly trouble… the real issue is being set free from the slavery and bondage of ‘sin’ which is represented as a dominating power (alongside its partner ‘death’).

Not a very full post this one, but when it comes to beliefs, I do not believe we are justified in ‘God is not present in…’ and we can fill in the blank. Maybe making it more concrete, if we ask the question is ‘Allah God?’ we can’t (OK, I can’t) come back with an automatic ‘yes / no’ answer. Let me go a roundabout path first – ‘is the Christian God God?’ That depends what you mean by the word ‘Christian’. Or to make it very personal – ‘is Martin’s God God?’ The answer has to be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The grace of God / that universalistic hand means even for Martin God is present, and the particular hand of God (through Jesus) there should be some evidence of a growing into the intimate knowledge of God in my life.

God can be present where we do not think any ‘decent God’ (one in my image!) should travel. This does not mean that ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ is found there. Truth is in the final analysis, and always will be, personal not propositional.

God is present with those who are not ‘believers’ (to what extent?) but I wish that there is a fullness, a knowing the unknown God that is on offer to them, a true being saved from their sins. The proclamation of the Gospel is a proclamation of freedom from captivity and an invitation to an adventure with the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus through the One Spirit.

A random set of ‘nots’

What do I believe, well here is a set of random ‘I do not believe’. And on each point I could be wrong!

I do not believe God is outside of time. Contrary to what is often said… in my humble opinion not shaped by a Jewish approach to time. Time is not primarily a scientific measurement but a necessary element ‘attached’ to personality. God awaits the future! With great anticipation.

I do not believe in ‘everlasting punishment / burning in a lake filled with sulphur’. I propose that the imagery used is of the burning up of Sodom and Gomorrah, imagery of total destruction with the smoke of its torment rising up. The destruction was ‘eternal’ – not open to change. So I land on ‘eternal punishment’ not ‘eternal punishing’.

I do not believe in predestination in the sense that it is often used, i.e. predestined to salvation. Every redemptive result is in Christ. Jesus is the ‘eternal elect one’ – anyone who is in Jesus is therefore elect from all eternity. My destiny… if in Christ then his destiny is mine (predestined).

I do not believe in God punished Jesus on the cross. I certainly have more work to do in my understanding of the cross, but there is no appeasement taking place there. God does not need to the cross in order to be able to forgive; we need the cross in order to find the path to forgiveness, and I think we need to back away from simply projecting what human forgiveness looks like on to God. The cross brings freedom from the powers, and that includes sin and death as a power (maybe the two centrally and united powers?).

I do not believe that salvation is a ‘ticket to heaven’. It certainly means finding a home in God at a familial level and becoming another means by which that wonderful era of the new creation can manifest to a level here.

I do not believe that God is male. This should be obvious, sadly not at a practical level. If God is not male we need to rethink so much. And what if (and this I believe) Jesus post Ascension is no longer male… OK I know I was supposed to be writing on what I don’t believe and I am in danger of straying just a tad, so will stop this one there.

I do not believe in a 6 day creation with a resulting young earth. Wonderful myth. Powerful myth. Deeply profound myth. World-changing myth. I think we should read it as (my opinion) intended so that it comes to us powerfully.

I do not believe that God instructed wholesale destruction. OH my this one challenges me and my reading of Scripture.

I do not believe the future is fixed in the sense of a set of events. A God of power could indeed do that… but a God whose very being is love (and all other attributes defined by what love, true love means) will always work with all possibilities to the one goal that we know as the ‘restoration of all things’. Yes, I do not dot all the ‘i’s’ and cross all the ‘t’s’ when it comes to omnipotence and omniscience. For me takes a ‘bigger’ God to act as I suggest. A more knowing God!! And if I am to image this God at any level down goes control and up goes love… and patience without losing hope.

I do not believe that the opposite of ‘election’ (church / those in Christ) automatically means damnation for others.

I do not believe every prayer is answered as we would like. Too many other factors involved! I do not elevate suffering, but how we respond to the setbacks becomes a great help to undoing the slavery that resulted to our sin (the whole of creation is groaning… God works all things together for good with those who love God and flow in God’s purposes). We do not exalt suffering… but it is the path to glory.

I do not believe in a millennial rule on earth, all too symbolic for me in a wonderful book of ‘cartoons’ (nearest genre we have to apocalyptic literature). One day the restoration of all creation withe fullness of God’s three-in-one presence with us. A permanent home for us… and for God.

I do not believe all of this is to burn up and I hope that we don’t simply limp out of here rescued by God. The last part expresses a hope that we can see some evidence of ‘new creation’ realities manifest around us. [And added to the last point, I am not post-millennialist either… just focused on ‘on earth as in heaven’.]

I do not believe that all those ‘outside of Christ’ are therefore devoid of the Spirit. The Spirit manifests in many ways, we who have responded to Jesus at a personal level are to manifest the Spirit as ‘the Spirit of Jesus’.

I do not believe that everything outside of the Christian faith is meaningless, simply that in Jesus is the ‘fullness’.

I could go on. And I could be wrong. This is why I have not signed a ‘statement of faith’. The Christian faith has a core to it – how could it not as it is centred on a Person? Outside of the core the variations are enormous. And I am supposed to find Scripture ‘useful’ and instructive, and to guide me to the Centre.

I hope you enjoyed the cursory run through. Please resist sending me a statement of faith – I am not smart enough to critique or agree with it!

Of this I am sure

I did say that these posts will be somewhat random, jumping from one area to another… I read today of a writer who described himself as ‘a post-classical-trinitarian-wondering-what-comes-next’… On a number of issues I am post-this-and-not-sure… That’s how it is and I think it is really healthy. (I think) there is one strong anchor point for me in my faith and it is the resurrection of Jesus.

I find the resurrection so incredible it just has to be for real. The central claim – that could have been repudiated – was that his body is no longer in the tomb. It was not that he is alive beyond death, for such a claim would not have meant very much particularly in that early Jewish context. Resurrection, a hope that was a predominant hope among Jews, was expected to happen in the future for the righteous (and the unrighteous?) and would mark that ‘the end’ had come. The claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead was very divisive in the early Jewish context. It was not so much a declaration of a new faith, but of a new era. I think this is why the term ‘this generation’ had such a strong temporal warning element to it in the early (Jewish) context of the book of Acts.

The challenge for us is we have not had a visitation from the Risen Christ (even a direct visitation from Jesus is it is from the Ascended Christ) and so our faith is based on those eye-witness reports. But I find the context so compelling. How on earth would the message of ‘Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18, ‘he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection’) have gained any level of traction. People did not rise from the dead, certainly not after being crucified and buried! (Resurrection not being that of the order of Lazarus (resuscitation) but permanent and in Jesus’ case with both discontinuity and continuity of physicality.) People did not rise, but the message takes root and in one city after another in the Roman empire people came to believe. They did not add ‘Jesus’ in as another god into their pantheon but belief in Jesus nullifed belief in all other gods, and put the recipients of this new faith in conflict with the whole Imperial setting. If there was no substance behind the claim that ‘he is risen’ there would have been no response within the Jewish culture, forget the ‘ends of the earth’.

I believe in the resurrection, and it marks Jesus out not as a ‘son of God’ but as the son of God (each Caesar was declared the divine son of the previous Caesar who had been divinised – the claim for Jesus, made by Paul in the letter to the believers in the capital is very poignant).

Belief in the resurrection has implications. Time being one of them. A new era is here now. That calls for sight at a different level, for without sight at that level it is evident that there is no new era present. It calls for a place to work from as much as a place to work toward. What does the new era consist of? No more tears, no more death (and decay). We can fight the old disorder or work from the new. I read with great appreciation the comments Ann makes on some of the posts. She knows more about climate change and crisis than most people I know and she of all people could be hopeless. I am sure her hopes are challenged many times, but her approach (and I hope I am reflecting it accurately) is that we are where we are, in that sense the old world has passed there is a new one here now. In the new one how can we respond in a way that we don’t simply grieve what is gone but within this context work for the future, for the next and subsequent generations. The resurrection of Jesus has much to say about the environment for Jesus is the first born of all creation – no burning up… and in the same way that at the return of Jesus that which is physically present will be transformed, so with those alive and that which is alive.

Inbreakings, irruptions from heaven. Disruptions, outbreaks. All of that become possible, and both together. Heaven (as a symbol of the new era) can break in. But that has to mean that the old gives way to the new. I think there is too much prayer for ‘heaven to invade earth’ without the corresponding commitment for ‘earth’ (as symbolic of the way things are) to give way. The resurrection of Jesus is not a simple add on that enhances this life but also displaces / transforms all values that we have been taught are normal.

It is my anchor point. In the light of that how do I live, for beliefs can be less than what is considered ‘orthodox’ but it seems that actions and behaviour are so important.

Pondering on my core beliefs

It is many years ago I wrote a series of blogs on ‘Scotty still believes’ and thought I would have another go at writing about my convictions, that which shapes my perspectives and (I hope) impacts how I act, speak and behave. The practical outworking is the scary part for we all know (of) people who boldly proclaim how orthodox they are (what they believe) but their everyday ethical behaviour is a denial of that. In Jesus there was no separation of the two – he was the truth, the reality.

[Not simply to be provocative, but to keep pushing toward the boundaries let me suggest that this does not mean everything Jesus believed and said was ‘true’. He did not have the education that we have received, maybe he would have thought the earth was the centre of the universe, that there was a literal Adam and Eve, that Jonah was historical etc. Maybe not. I put that in here as ‘getting it right’ does not mean we are communicators of the truth; I am certainly wrong on some of my convictions – the number of historical and current Christians who would disagree with me on many points mean that I am in the minority, hence I would be foolish to think I have the truth! However, the bigger challenge is not what I believe, but who I am. Paul said ‘follow me’ and even he had to qualify it with ‘as I follow Christ’. Jesus as the truth is pointing far beyond his words.]

In lockdown I wrote four small books under the overall title of ‘explorations in theology’ (all four are available at: https://bozpublications.com . I started with ‘Humanising the Divine’ so let me explain why. Theology when written almost always starts with ‘God’. Then very soon comes the Christology part and the wrestling with the two natures of Jesus. I object to that approach for Jesus placed himself as the lens through which God is seen, a non-Jesus like God is not GOD. All centres in on Jesus… and not simply the ‘this is who God is’ but ‘this is humanity as intended / will be’. God and humanity – made by God for one another. God has a HIGH view of humanity not a low view… those passages that come back with ‘all your righteousness is as filthy rags’ and the like are critiques of vain attempts to reach to God. Forget it, God is among us, for in him we live and move and have our being. The passages that are along the lines of ‘I am but a worm… in sin I was born’ we can all identify with, but they are hardly theological statements! And why do we identify with them, because they speak eloquently of our ‘falling short… of the glory of God’. We have such a high calling that we all face moments of ‘and I am called to image God, to be like Jesus’. Sin stares us in the face – our sins that mark us out as not being who we are called to be / become and sin (singular) that power that too often successfully traps us and condemns us to being slaves of sin.

At some stage in theology comes a discussion on eternal destinies – inadequately summarised as ‘heaven and hell’. From the Scriptures it is not possible to determine what Jesus thought about those subjects, those references to ‘gnashing of teeth and outer darkness’ certainly have no immediate reference to things ‘eternal’. I respect those who hold to such beliefs but suggest that they are far from central in Scripture. ‘Salvation’ in its various shapes we find it are far more immediate, salvation from sins rather than from ‘hell’ being central. And I find I need salvation on a daily basis, with the great hope that one day I will truly be saved.

So I will slowly just write up over the coming days – as I ponder as to what Scotty believes and why – in a random way where I think some of my core convictions lie, and I am sure in the process I will receive some sight of where there is a gap between my professed beliefs and my practices. Always the OUCH part.

Sect or Cult?

A bit of fun with terms... maybe provocative?

Moving away from the safe territory of the previous set of posts I thought I would jump into a little foray on sects and cults. The post is a little (but only ever so little) provocative.

‘Sectarian’ although strictly just meaning to belong to a particular sect often manifests in prejudice, discrimination and hatred. Sects can breed sectarianism in this sense of opposition to others, but a sect does not necessarily have to mean that is the outcome.

A sect is recognised as a sub-set within a broader classification (more later on this). A cult though is viewed as having deviant beliefs (or behaviour / practices) and therefore not true to the core beliefs of what it is loosely connected to. Traditionally, for example, Mormonism has been viewed as a cult, with sufficient beliefs that made it different to ‘orthodox’ Christianity. Some ‘cults’ are later rehabilitated and accepted (and maybe if we have a particular political allegiance and someone from that former cult is running for a position of power that just might influence the push for acceptance?).

There are three core monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three connect in some way to the biblical stories. Judaism has the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (although this latter term is late, originally it was known as the Mikra, meaning that which is read). The Tanakh, we can say, corresponds to our ‘Old Testament’, and Christians add a ‘New Testament’ (and of course within the big Christian traditions there are different authoritative writings (canons)). Islam has the Quran and holds respect for prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus; Muhammad being the final prophet. The Quran being the words from Allah that he communicated to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel.

Islam, the most recent of the three monotheistic faiths, has an interesting beginning. The context is of Arabia where Muhammad receives a revelation in a cave. In an animistic / polytheistic culture he proclaims there is one true god (Allah being the Arabic word for ‘god’). Into that context that is quite a proclamation.

Was his revelation from heaven? Was there any part of it that came from heaven? Or was it simply ‘demonic’?

A sect is a distinct grouping within a wider context; essentially believing that they are more faithful to the worldview and beliefs of the wider group they belong to. In the Jewish world there are, and certainly were in Jesus’ day numerous Jewish sects. We come across two main ones in the NT, with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There were others, certainly the Essenes (maybe they based themselves at Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls being related to them); the Herodians might be more a political distinction than religious; and likewise the Zealots might be a term more related to their proposed methodology than to their religious party affiliation. It is for this reason we cannot really say ‘the Jews believed’. In the time of Jesus the Sadducees were the dominant group inside the Sanhedrin. They were less in favour of oral tradition than the Pharisees, who in turn were further divided dependent on which of the Rabbis was viewed as the one to follow (in Jesus’ day the schools of two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai were well established and their different views on divorce lay behind the question posed to Jesus about divorce, a question that was intended to set him up). Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees did not (which shows how much we read into Scriptures when we insist that such beliefs are there in the Old Testament). Probably the Pharisees carried greater weight among the people and influenced the common understanding; and certainly post AD-70 it was their approach that became the dominant one, with Rabbinic Judaism becoming mainline Judaism.

Paul was a Pharisee, and he excelled within that. He was righteous, zealous for the Law, such zeal being in line with Old Testament action, such as the ‘righteous’ actions of the sons of Levi who slaughtered 3000 fellow-Jews, in order to keep the people pure. (Did the later Paul have the same interpretation of their action as he would have held before his conversion?) He persecuted followers of Jesus… Jewish-followers of Jesus as there were no other kind of ‘Christians’ at that time. He would not have been interested in whether a bunch of renegade Gentiles developed some kind of faith in Jesus, for after all they never were part of the chosen people. I think his attitude would have been ‘believe what you want, you’re damned already’. On the other hand if Jews were to proclaim that Jesus (crucified and therefore evidently cursed and not the son of God) was the Messiah that would only provoke God to anger. Paul knew that he and his fellow Jews were already in trouble, so to prevent compounding the problem, he being devoted to the law, was motivated to persecute any unfaithful person in Israel. He went house to house to cleanse the people.

His own reflections were:

  • He was righteous according to the law and his traditions.
  • He now understood that he was a blasphemer (he had been misrepresenting God),
  • and was formerly ignorant (so says Mr Highly Learned Saul of Tarsus!).

His conversion was no small thing. It was more than a tweak, and perhaps there is real value in suggesting that he found the solution (Jesus) so had to then work backwards to find out what the problem was.

We could describe Christianity (followers of the way) as another Jewish sect, though perhaps Paul would have seen them as a cult.

Here are a few wacky suggestions.

  • Maybe Islam is a non-Jewish Jewish sect / cult, with a belief in Abraham et al.
  • Probably Islam drinks from the well that much of Christianity became, the Christianity of power, control and Christendom.
  • The revelation that is in Jesus of who God is (and also who humanity at core is) positions faith in Jesus in an interesting place. Islam the god of power, sovereignty… I pause for a moment, so how different is that from the god of much of Christianity / certainly the god of Christendom?
  • Maybe Islam (some forms of) and Christianity (some forms of) even go beyond that of a Paul-as-Pharisee response to not only purifying the people of faith, but wanting to purify one and all, and produce a Christian (or Islamic) nation. Shock… I don’t see that as being very smart. Going beyond the one who claimed his behaviour was blasphemous?
  • Jesus, the Incarnation, the humility, the eternal servant-nature. Scripture does not suggest the Incarnation is a temporary revelation, for we read that ‘being in the form of God’, Jesus, being God, acts in a God-like way and empties himself.
  • Maybe there are forms of Islam, Judaism (the one that Paul adhered to that later he said was a misrepresentation of God) and Christianity that are all from the same well. Do they have a revelation from heaven… in part?… or simply demonic? That well being ‘God sovereign over all, and we live from that basis’?
  • What if we are all sects of the big worldview that there is only one true God? All thinking we represent the God we believe in just believing we are doing it better than all other sects.

I used to think I was part of a sect (Protestantism is full of sects) that was pushing to be true to what Jesus had revealed (centred on ecclesiology: the right form of church). I wonder if I should push it wider and ask if we are all just a variation, a sub-set of a bigger monotheistic belief, and perhaps we would do well to seek avoiding crossing the line and becoming a cult. And finally how deviant do we have to be (belief and / or behaviour) to no longer be a sect but to become a cult?

Updated beliefs… maybe

Beliefs are difficult to define at times. Do we mean ‘core doctrines’ or ‘a way of looking at the world’. Theology kind of covers both I guess, and the more honest person has to acknowledge that one’s beliefs are also shaped by experience, personality and our ‘insides’ in the sense of what is really going on inside us at a conscious and sub-conscious level. It was an interesting reflection to go over the ten posts of what I still believe, and also to realise that in these past years there have either been (inevitable?) developments or changes along the way.

Definitions are not always helpful. The term ‘evangelical’ is often qualified by an adjective such as ‘post-‘, ‘progressive-‘ or ‘historic-‘. This illustrates the situation. We can claim to be an evangelical if you mean ‘….’ or deny being one if you mean something else by the term. In 1995 Robert Johnston delivered a very helpful paper to the American Theological Society where he addressed the issue of ‘Orthodoxy and Heresy: a Problem for Modern Evangelicalism’. In that paper he described a shift from a previous approach of ‘bounded-set’ thinking to ‘center-set’ thinking. With the former approach life was easy. Draw a square – all who subscribe to the beliefs inside the square were orthodox, all outside were heretics. ‘Center-set’ described a couple of key questions that were at the centre:

  • By what means is a person reconciled to God?
  • By what authority to you believe and teach what you believe and teach?

Answer to the first question is ‘Jesus and the cross’, and the second one ‘the Scriptures’. Having answered those two questions in that way does not determine how far one travels in a given direction. The answers could result in ‘only those who are truly born again of the Spirit and are baptised’ are reconciled through to universalism. It could lead to ‘seven day creation in 4004BC’ to ‘evolution’. Hence the paper – how do we determine what is ‘heresy’.

The Bible itself does not always help us. I am so glad that we are not called to blind obedience to a book but to follow a Person. And when we look to the book we have to wrestle with issues of interpretation. It seems the Bible forces us to do this. Jehu is commended for fulfilling the will of God and wiping out Ahab’s evil house at Jezreel (2 Kings 10 ‘You have done well…’ – v.30), yet in Hosea 1:4 Israel is to be punished for the blood shed by Jehu at Jezreel. Did he fulfil the will of God (2 Kings and the prophetic words through Elijah) or were his actions to be judged as per Hosea? Not easy when they are both in the same sacred volume, but I am glad the difficulty is there, it at least helps when wrestling with the genocides of the Old Testament. It has been interesting to read the dialogues between Greg Boyd and Derek Flood. Both take a christocentric approach to Scripture, both refusing to accept that (the OT) God is a God who endorses genocide, but they take different approaches to solving the issue due to how they interpret Scripture. Challenging… and I love the problematic situation that is presented to the inerrantist when faced with someone from Crete in a court of law!

‘Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?’ (I leave out the oath bit there as I like to take some key parts of Scripture very seriously!)

‘I do,’ replies the person from Crete.

‘Objection’, shouts the lawyer who is a fundamentalist Bible believing in a very strong inerrantist kind of way.

‘This person is from Crete, and all those from Crete lie. I have that on the authority of Scripture.’ (I won’t give the reference but check out Titus!!)

‘Ah yes but this is only authoritative and inerrant as originally given. Put them under a lie-detector and then we can call a church council and announce that the Scripture in Titus is not as originally given…’

OK, I stop but I was having a little fun there. My point is we have a book we have to wrestle with and it requires that I be less dogmatic than I would like to be on certain situations.

I am certainly 100% evangelical if Robert Johnston’s two questions are sent my way. So when I push some directions in the next few posts I am not ready to be put out of the fold just yet. I will try and centre in on areas that seem to have become more central to me as far as both understanding the journey thus far and in setting a direction to come.

Oh and for the record I don’t think all Cretans lie!


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