The Predestination Controversy

Stavanger Lutheran Church in Ossian Iowa.

Norwegian Lutheran immigrants to the United States created several different denominations over the years, but the most prominent during the 19th century was the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church known as The Norwegian Synod. The Synod was organized in 1853. In later decades the Synod was rocked by several theological controversies, including fights over absolution, justification, and eventually election/predestination.

    Reading literature from that time you quickly realize that the Predestination Controversy (naadevalgsstriden) was not confined to seminaries but divided entire Norwegian communities in the Midwest. Jon Gjerde puts it this way:

The controversy began among the clergy but quickly spread to the laity. Church members passionately discussed the theological questions, according to one participant, “on the streets and in the alleys, in stores and in saloons, and through a continuous flow of agitating articles [in newspapers and periodicals].” words occasionally led to fights. “They argued predestination in the saloons, with their tongues,” said one, “and settled it in the alley with their fists.” Although fisticuffs were rare, certain Norwegian congregations suffered wrenching internal strife. “The ties of old friendship broke,” remembered one man. “Neighbor did not speak to neighbor. The daughter who was married to a member of the other party became a stranger in her father’s house. Man and wife turned into dog and cat. Brothers and sisters were sundered from one  another.” (Gjerde 1997 page 118)

Bibliography

Gjerde, Jon. 1997. The Minds of the West Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

The Talmud in Calvinism

Writing in Christian Hebraists and Dutch Rabbis, Aaron Katchen discusses the Dutch Calvinist appropriation of the Talmud in Biblical exegesis. He quotes the the famous Dutch theologian Johannes Coccejus, as saying:
…it is a new thing I am attempting, namely, to show that a knowledge of the Talmud and of the talmudic writers is of extraordinary help in the elucidation of the New Testament.
Before that, though, quoting Grotious’s view from the De jure that:
the Hebrew writers can contribute not a little to our understanding of the meaning of the books belonging to the old covenant,
Coch continues by saying that the Talmud, the “Doctrinalis,” or the “authorized teaching” of the Jews, as he refers to it at this point, has its usefulness for the understanding of the law in all its facets: ceremonial, natural, and that fixed by convention (“positivus”).
Where, but the Jewish Talmud, can the learned traditions handed down by our forefathers be sought? Indeed, these are relevant, whether for a fuller understanding of Mosaic law, ritual as well as judicial and moral; or for an illustration of exotic (?) laws; or for shedding light on accounts of the Jewish commonwealths [e.g, Josephus(?)]; or, what is most important, for confirmation of the account in the Gospels, where there is abundant mention of Jewish customs, law and traditions.
Katchen, 68-69

The End this Isn’t

Events like last week’s tsunami often spur on premillenial believers who think that things have never been this bad before and that the end is in sight. This is not new. James Moorhead mentions an encounter that Robert Willett had back in World War I:

…he encountered an energetic man who explained that Kaiser Wilhelm was the beast described in the thirteenth chapter of Revelation and that Jesus would appear within months to “rapture” the saints.

As George Marsden points out in Fundamentalism and American Culture, World War I touched off a frenzy of speculation about Germany and “the Huns” being a possible candidate for the Antichrist and his Empire. One can imagine how a world war would lead people to speculate on such matters. And I am sure that this speculation reached another level when Hitler was around. And yet, the end did not come.

This did not stop speculation. The emphasis shifted from shattered Germany to the Red Menace and the Soviet Union which would surely invade Israel and fulfill Ezekiel 38. The bad interpretation of premillenialism said that “this generation” applied to 1948 and Israel (we are now 63 years later, when does a generation end?). Chuck Smith said the end was probably going to be in 1981…or maybe 1986.

After the Cold War ended with no Russian invasion in sight, there was a bit of a lull as some looked to China as the new possible beast from the East. Then we had 9/11 and the premillenial world went crazy over Islam. Surely Islam would usher in the end by invading Israel.

In some ways, premillenialism cannot ever be proven wrong. You can show people all of these past wrong predictions and they will blow it off as men’s opinions. Dates change, the Antichrist changes, new events are constantly discovered within the same old passages, and the end still does not come. But people love to think that our generation is the most important one, and that things like this have never occurred before. Well, they have. Many of the Biblical texts point to AD 70 and the destruction of the old world. No more Temple, no more Law, no more Jews (their religion was ended at the Cross and there is no more Temple worship that wouldn’t be an insult to God). Read this book and learn a thing or two. God’s kingdom will continue to spread from the River to the ends of the earth, like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree.

Rob Bell and Hell in My Life

The controversy of the week in the Christian blogosphere regards Rob Bell and his apparent leap into universalism – (not surprising to me given the Wheaton and Fuller pedigree). I had never heard of Bell until last week, maybe because I don’t much care about celebrity preachers in general. What has been interesting to me is watching the reaction of people that I follow to Bell’s position, from the “left” and “right” theologically. But this post isn’t really about Bell or the reaction to him as much as it is about my own experience with the doctrine (and reality) of hell.

I had a period of apostasy that lasted for about eight years. During the last year of that time I was consistently worried about the possibility of death and an endless eternity in hell. This fear was part of what God used to bring me back to Him. For some folks, the gracious message of love and forgiveness, new life and cleansing, is what draws them back to the faith or to Christ for the first time. For me, the fear of hell was very real and very terrifying. It spurred me on more than the idea that I could be forgiven, which I always took as a given.

Removing the concept of hell from our lexicon is removing an effective means of spurring people to salvation. It is also a gigantic and terrifying lie. If hell is a reality – and if we take the Scripture seriously it most certainly is – then we may be condemning people to that very place if we backhandedly assure them that they need not worry overmuch about the possibility of spending eternity there, because in the end everyone is saved and “love wins.” That is something I would not want to stand before God and explain on the Last Day.

Do Not Know Thyself

Writing on the Wrightsaid email list some time ago, James Jordan said:

And it is spiritually dangerous to speak in such a way as to encourage people to inspect their own hearts. “Know thyself” is Socratic and demonic. We CANNOT know ourselves, and must trust in God to know us. We must accept what He says about us. We can judge ourselves in particular matters, but the heart is hidden from us. Our “heart experiences” are untrustworthy. We must trust God and His Word.

How contrary is this to most of what passes for even “Christian” thinking today? We have accepted the “know thyself” formula as if it is the key to enlightenment, when in fact the Bible tells us:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

 

A Theology of Space Travel

Is Earth our only home? As a Christian, what should we think about space travel, colonizing planets, and transforming the universe? Could other life be out there? One of my long-term goals is to think through these issues a bit from a Christian standpoint. Some of my foundational assumptions are (not in order of priority):

[1] Postmillenialism

[2] Creation

[3] Human uniqueness

[4] Endurance of the Earth

[5] Inspiration of Scripture

Postmillenialism means that we may be here for 200,000 years more before the return of Christ. James Jordan addresses this a bit in his essay, “An Antidote for Yuppie Postmillenialism.”, He writes:

…does the Bible anywhere say that planet earth is our only project? If God has given us the ability to travel to other planets, perhaps they also are to be developed and glorified as part of his universal plan – all before Christ returns. This could take hundreds of thousands of years. (One reason I enjoy the marvellous science fiction stories of Cordwainer Smith, a devout Christian, is because they communicate a feel for such a universal development and glorification.)

So I hope to dig into this from time to time, both in private and on this blog.

More on Antinomianism

Andrew Sandlin wrote a good post this week on the same subject that I keep seeing – Christians who use grace as a cover for antinomianism. Sandlin says:

We ourselves are required to rebuke evil and have no company with it (Eph. 5:11–13).

What many of today’s grace-talking non-judgmentalists actually want is a grandfatherly God who overlooks their rebellion and favors them despite their gross, unrepentant sin.  They want to fornicate, despise God’s church and its ordinances, observe pornography, abuse prescription (and illegal) drugs, profane God’s name, revel in lewdness, spurn the godly counsel of parents and pastors and teachers, eschew hard work, and otherwise lust to be accepted by an apostate, pagan culture — all while assuming the pious protection of God’s grace.

 

Foundational Thinkers

In the theological circles that I identify with there are many streams of thought which converge in the current conversation. I would like to briefly identify some of the great thinkers, past and present, who define that conversation.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Eugen Rosentstock Huessy (ERH) was a German Christian thinker. Peter Leithart discusses him in this article, which I will quote here.

The scope of his life’s work is impressively unclassifiable. He disdained the disciplinary confinements of the modern university, and the disdain shows. He wrote on language, religion and the Bible, calendars, time, and grammar. He published a massive history of the Western revolution and a three-volume Soziologie, as well as a monograph on his academic specialty, medieval German legal history. When he came to America, he took a chair in German language and culture at Harvard, but he could have taught sociology, law, philosophy, comparative religion, or any of a half dozen other disciplines. Harvard didn’t know what to do with him. Since he talked a lot about God, they sent him to the divinity school.

Openly orthodox, Rosenstock-Huessy was also a remarkably progressive thinker, embodying what Chesterton, one of Rosenstock-Huessy’s favorite authors, described as the adventure of orthodoxy. This is evident particularly in his meditations on time, and the fundamental temporal orientation of his work. He observed that institutions, ideas, and systems have their day—and then something new is needed: “Philosophies have their time. It is a misunderstanding to attribute a perennial character to any particular philosophy. Philosophy is the expression of a zeitgeist. Philosophies must be buried at the right time. The Jesuits know that Thomism is dead.” He spoke of the world entering a “Johannine” age of history, an age of the Spirit that would move quite differently from the earlier ages of the Church: “each generation has to act differently precisely in order to represent the same thing. Only so can each become a full partner in the process of Making Man.”

I have not read ERH myself, but need to and hope to find the time to in the future.

René Girard

Rene Girard is a French philosopher famed for his theory of “mimetic rivalry” and his discussion of the scapegoat mechanism in society. Perhaps a portion of this interview will serve to summarize his views:

NPQ: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

I have his book “Violence and the Sacred” but have not read it yet.

Cornelius Van Til

Finally, there is the great Cornelius Van Til. Van Til is well-known for being a pioneer of presuppositional apologetics and the transcendental argument for the existence of God. He stressed the antithesis between the believer and the non-believer. Van Til said this of his own method:

My understanding of the relationship between Christian and non-Christian, philosophically speaking.
1. Both have presuppositions about the nature of reality:
a. The Christian presupposes the triune God and his redemptive plan for the universe as set forth once for all in Scripture.
b. The non-Christian presupposes a dialectic between “chance” and “regularity,” the former accounting for the origin of matter and life, the latter accounting for the current success of the scientific enterprise.
2. Neither can, as finite beings, by means of logic as such, say what reality must be or cannot be.
a. The Christian, therefore, attempts to understand his world through the observation and logical ordering of facts in self-conscious subjection to the plan of the self attesting Christ of Scripture.
b. The non-Christian, while attempting an enterprise similar to the Christian’s, attempts nevertheless to use “logic” to destroy the Christian position. On the one hand, appealing to the non- rationality of “matter,” he says that the chance- character of “facts” is conclusive evidence against the Christian position. Then, on the other hand, he maintains like Parmenides that the Christian story cannot possibly be true. Man must be autonomous, “logic” must be legislative as to the field of “possibility” and possibility must be above God.

 

 

The Correctly Updated Version (CUV)

The Correctly Updated Version of the Bible is my paraphrase of the Scripture as revised by great theological themes of the modern American Church. Today’s passage is Matthew 21:12-17. The CUV text follows:

And Jesus entered the temple and saw some selling and buying in the temple.

And he approached the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

And they responded, “That is your interpretation of the passage. You can’t just take a verse out of context like that and you certainly can’t judge someone else. Perhaps the intention of our heart is correct, even if we are doing some things that others find questionable.”

Another continued, “Yaweh will sort these things out, but on this side of the Resurrection, we just have to agree to disagree.”