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Monday, June 17, 2019

Thinking about God in three ways - natural theology, Biblical theology and perfect being theology

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Romans 11:33-36 "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen."

Introduction:


In my last two posts, I wrote on ways we can think about God - natural revelation (and its corresponding project of natural theology) and special revelation (with its correlate of Biblical theology). For readers desiring to revisit those posts, the links are provided here: http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2019/05/thinking-about-god-through-general.html and here: http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2019/05/thinking-about-god-through-books-of.html.

Today I aim to expound a third way of thinking about God - namely, through what is called by theologians: "Perfect Being Theology". We will first review how natural theology and Biblical theology differ and yet relate, since both ways of thinking about God can reinforce one another. Then, we will consider perfect being theology and it's role to help evaluate conclusions drawn from our efforts in Biblical theology. By the end of today's post, we aim to have a three-fold system by which we can think further about God in the scope of the Christian life.

1. General Revelation, natural theology and their interaction with Biblical theology.
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First, we can contemplate God's being and some attributes through the project of natural theology. Natural theology is a man-made effort to offer a systematized set of observations of God from the theater of general revelation we see in creation, the conscience and concepts of reason outside of Divine authoritative scripture.

As we noted in the last two posts, natural theology is exercised independently of appeal to the biblical text. With that said, in order to insure our conclusions from natural theology are correct, we measure them by the more specific light of special revelation of the Bible and Perfect being theology (which I'll explain below). Explained differently, in an ultimate sense, if one has exercised natural theology with a newly transformed heart and mind devoted to Christ, there won't result a conflict between the conclusions of natural theology and those of biblical theology done from the text of the Bible.

We noted how scripture refers to God's general revelation in creation, the conscience, and thoughts in the mind. General revelation is so-called due to it's access by anyone regardless of whether they are a Believer or unbeliever. Although General revelation is not a saving revelation, yet, if someone positively responds to general revelation, they are positioned to rightly received the fuller special revelation of God in the Bible and through Jesus (consider Cornelius in Acts 10, for example).

2. Special revelation and Biblical theology can evaluate reflections about God that we gain from natural theology.

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We secondly think about God by noting how he is revealed in the books of the Bible. Whenever we study about God or any other doctrine through the books of the Bible, we call such a project "Biblical theology". As we take the conclusions we draw from Biblical theology and combined them with whatever we may draw from studying other human disciplines, we call such a project "systematic theology". Systematic theology refers to a systematic approach to God's revelation of himself in the Bible, and other human disciplines such as history, science, and philosophy.

The Bible is our main source for drawing conclusions about God as related to His creative work and redemptive activities. Theologians refer to the Bible as "special revelation" because it is the specific source to which we appeal when understanding correct notions about God. God's revelation of himself through both special revelation and general revelation is without error. Any attempts that humans exercise in reflecting about God either through general revelation or special revelation can have blind-spots. Hence, the work of biblical theology and natural theology are ongoing projects requiring humility and dependence upon God.

3. Perfect being theology as a way of checking to our Biblical theological reflections on God's special revelation in the Bible.

When we consider specifically what God reveals about himself through the Bible or special revelation, what central theme or themes can we use in checking the validity of our conclusions? After all, the projects of biblical theology and systematic theology are ongoing. Both are prone to errors due to the limitations of human understanding. 


There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit grants illumination to believers as they study the biblical text. Nevertheless, Christians who aim to know God experientially, practically and intellectually, need a way in which they can check their conclusions about God. Central affirmations such as: "God is one God, who is three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and these Three Persons are truly God" are gleaned from a host of Biblical texts. To evaluate the coherence of such statements to both communicate the Biblical message about God and defend such doctrines against critics, we employ what is deemed "Perfect Being Theology", as described below.

From the days of Christ, the apostles and subsequent generations of the early church fathers, there was a common way talking about God and communicating him to others. As one begins to read certain writers from the Middle Ages who stood on the shoulders of earlier Christian thinkers, as well as the Biblical text, there developed a particular method of thinking about God within the stream of Classical Christian theism called "Perfect Being Theology". 


Arguably the best representative of perfect being theology is the 11th Century theologian Anselm of Canterbury. What Anselm wanted to accomplish was a way of meditating upon God that would both demonstrate his existence to non-believers and provide a central theme for thinking about him in the Christian church. In his masterpiece, "The Proslogion", Anselm develops his definition about God, which has proven quite helpful and thinking about God,

" God is a being then which no greater can be conceived".

In more recent times, theologians have  restated this definition of God as follows:

" God is the greatest conceivable being".

This definition of God stirs the mind to conceive of a being with certain qualities and features that are called "great-making properties", that is, attributes related to strength, moral virtue, being, knowledge and other traits. As we extend our thoughts on these attributes to their outer-most limits, we are attempting to think of the greatest possible way such qualities are expressed above any created being. Furthermore, when we refer to God as the "Greatest Conceivable Being", we refer to him as "Perfect", that is, God cannot be improved upon nor can He diminish. What's more, such a being is described by Perfect Being Theology as necessarily or "having to" exist, since by virtue of His Divine nature, God as a Maximally Great Being must exist and thus cannot be any other way than the way He is.

When we look at all other created things, there are ways in which they could be improved upon and we know that there are ways in which they can grow worse over time. Moreover, other created things could either exist or not exist. In other words, created things are not complete in and of themselves. Created things require something else other than themselves to either complete them or to sustain their existence. Anslem's "Proslogion" uses such thoughts to develop a wonderful argument for God's existence, of which we don't have time to expound upon in this post.


God alone is the Greatest Conceivable Being. Such thoughts about God are not just abstractions of the mind, but also highly practical to everyday living. God is complete in enough himself (Isaiah 43:10-11; 44:6; Romans 11:36; Hebrews 1:8-11), which means when we think about God in this way, we can honestly say that God is sufficient for us, and that we can look to him to complete whatever is lacking in our lives.

4. How Biblical is Perfect Being Theology?


When Anselm and other thinkers drew together the threads of "Perfect Being Theology", they were doing so from considerations of the Biblical text. Theologian Paul Helm has referenced certain passages of scripture that demonstrate how this idea of God as the "Greatest Conceivable Being" is a proper reference point for thinking about God. Such passages as Genesis 22:16, 2 Samuel 7:22, Nehemiah 9:32; Jeremiah 32:18, Psalm 95:3, 96:4, 77:13; Exodus 18:14; Psalm 145:13; Titus 2:13, and Hebrews 6:13-14 are examples of how God alone is the greatest conceivable being.

Closing thoughts: So how may we use perfect being theology, Biblical theology and natural theology to practically think about God? 


Dr. Brian Leftow of Oxford University, notes that to practically work through "perfect-being theology", we begin with the notion of God as the greatest conceivable being with the greatest qualitative attributes. As we begin to construct a perfect being theology we first of all ask: how do these attributes fit together? we secondly ask: what are they? thirdly, we aim to figure out how to communicate a coherent idea of God.

As we draw today's post to a close, we need to ask ourselves: why does this matter? Why have three ways of thinking about God: natural theology, biblical Theology, and perfect being theology? 


First, knowing God is the main purpose of life. God has made it possible to know him in a general sense through general revelation. By engaging in the project of natural theology, we are setting ourselves up to enjoy God's revelation of himself through creation, the conscience and considerations of reason. Such a project at least helps us to enjoy what we can "know about God". This is God's world, a theater through which we can enjoy the light of his glory as revealed in the heavens above and in the mind Within each of us.

Secondly, thinking about God through the Bible gives us the specific revelation of himself as the Creator, Redeemer and Completer of all history. Biblical theology aids in helping us to "enjoy the God we can know". Seeing how God has specifically revealed himself through Jesus Christ puts us into personal contact with him. By responding through faith in his special Revelation in the Bible and Jesus, we can go from merely "knowing about God" to "knowing him".

Then finally, perfect being theology exercises the mind to think more closely about God. It is essential to humble ourselves to the fact that we can never fully comprehend God, even though we can genuinely know Him (see Jeremiah 9:23-24; James 4:8). Jesus reminds us in Matthew 22:37-39 that we are to love the Lord Our God with all our heart, soul and mind. What perfect being theology does is to provide another way of checking my conclusions about God that I draw from thinking about him in the biblical text as well as saturating my mind with more thoughts of him. In the words of one author, any effort to do theology ought to lead to doxology or "worship of God". May we take the time to think more about God in order that we may live for him by delighting in Him.


Friday, May 31, 2019

Thinking about God through the books of the Bible

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Jeremiah 9:23-24  "Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; 24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord."

Introduction: Why it is so important to think about God

The great 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon comments in a sermon about the benefits of thinking about God. J.I. Packer begins his classic book, "Knowing God" (readers can click on the Amazon link to see more information about this amazing book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B006NZ66RC/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 ), by quoting Spurgeon:

"The proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father."

"There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity."

As Packer begins to develop why he is writing his book "knowing God", he lays out in his second chapter how pursuit of God through studying His being and perfections can benefit us:

1. Those who know God have great energy for God. 

2. Those who know God have great thoughts of God.

3. Those who know God show great boldness for God. 

4. Those who know God have great contentment in God. 

Review of the last post that began thinking about God from general revelation and focusing upon thinking about God through the special revelation of the Bible

In our last post we considered thinking about God by way of general revelation, religious experience and natural theology. (curious readers can review the last post by clicking on the link here:  http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2019/05/thinking-about-god-through-general.html ).

In this post I want us to consider how we can think about God through His special revelation in the Bible and by the Person of Jesus Christ. The way we will pursue such thoughts is by considering key passages, themes or summaries of each book of the Bible that will draw for us a Biblical portrait of God with regard to His being, attributes, names and identity.

In Genesis, God is the Providential Creator. 

He is the Creator of all space, time, matter, life and humanity (Genesis 1:1, 2-25, 26-27). As the eternal Sovereign exercising authority as King over what He decreed, God reigns with no rivals, declaring all He has made "good" (Genesis 2:1-4). God made man as a covenantal being, meaning that God pledged Himself to man and desired man to pledge himself to God through obedience. Man broke this original "covenant of works" (Genesis 2:16-17). God knew man would fall and already intended to offer man, through His covenant with Adam's wife, a covenant of grace (Genesis 3:15). Both Adam and his wife respond by faith, as indicated by Adam's naming of her as "Eve" or "mother of all who live" and God's clothing of them in the skins of animals sacrificed on their behalf. God's covenant of grace is expressed repeatedly, most notably in His dealings with Abraham (Genesis 12, 17, 22), Isaac (Genesis 26) and Jacob (Genesis 28,32,35) and the various covenants He would make with Israel (see Romans 9:1-5). 

In Exodus, God is the Redeemer.
In Exodus 3 we find God calling Moses to go to Pharaoh and exclaim: "let my people go". When Moses inquires as to the identity of the One commissioning him, God replies in Exodus 3:14 "God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

In Leviticus, God is Holy
In Leviticus 11:44 we see God issue the command: "be holy, for I am holy." God "holiness" is His "otherness". The holiness of God speaks of the concentration of all of God's moral perfections, such as mercy, goodness, love, justice, forbearance." 

In Numbers, God leads His people.
For 40 years Israel wondered in the wilderness as the result of their unbelief. God led them by His self-revelation of theophanies as a "pillar of cloud" by day, guarding them from the burning heat of the desert sun, and as a "pillar of fire" by night. God was demonstrating that "darkness and light" are the same to Him, since He sees all and knows all things. As Numbers 23:19 reminds us - “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?"

In Deuteronomy, God is the living God.
The first major division of the Bible, Pentateuch, formerly introduces us to God. By way of His names we see two major designations: "Elohim", found 2706 times, is in proper contexts referring to God as He is as God, the Almighty, eternal, Divine Being that makes covenant with His creation and people. The second name is God's personal name, "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" (pronounced "Adonai" in the Hebrew Bible), found 5766 times in the Old Testament. This most common name of God reveals how God is in His being as "the self-sufficient one". 

Whenever God first revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 3, He was revealing Himself as the theologians refer, a se, a Latin phrase referring to God's self-sufficiency or "aseity". We see then that God is the Creator, the Providential Sovereign One that is the Redeemer of His people. The remainder of the Historical books of the Old Testament reveal further truths.

In Joshua, He Captain of Salvation.

Judges, He is our Deliverer.

Ruth, He is our Kinsmen Redeemer.

1 & 2 Samuel, He's the Prophet's message.

1 & 2 Chronicles, He is the Sovereign God.

In Ezra, He is the Faithful scribe.

Nehemiah tells us that God is the Finisher of what He begins.

Esther presents God as always on time.

In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Joshua through 2 Kings are regarded as the "former prophets". The Jews used this designation to indicate that God's prophetic voice threaded its way through the history of his people Israel as they became entangled in the affairs of the surrounding nations. In the Hebrew Bible, the Jews placed Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles as the final books, since they summarize the entire history of God's dealings with His people from the beginnings of creation until 90 year period following their return from exile in Babylon. 

What follows are the prophetic books as we find in our English Bibles. God always had a word in the foreground of what He was otherwise orchestrating to prepare for the arrival of the Eternal Son in His incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth. 

In Isaiah with see God as the Supreme King.

Jeremiah portrays God as hope in the midst of sorrow.

Lamentations describes God present in the pit of our despair.

Ezekiel focuses upon the glory of God - craving Him when He seems absent and rejoicing at the prospect of His return.

Daniel reveals the Ancient of days and the second Person of the Godhead, the Son.

Hosea shows God as the faithful spouse.

Joel makes known to us God in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

Amos reveals God as Truth

Obadiah reveals how God humbles the proud.

Jonah depicts God as the Great Foreign Missionary seeking the lost.

Micah states there none like our God.

Nahum presents God having His way in the storm.

Habakkuk reminds us that God hears our prayers.

Zephaniah describes God as rejoicing over His people.

Haggai presents the coming Messiah as the One to be desired.

Zechariah points the way to God as the fountain of salvation.

Malachi closes out the Old Testament by announcing the Lord as having the power to heal the wound of sin.

In our English Bibles we find 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books. Each time God revealed Himself, there followed an additional body of written Divine revelation that connected to the previous collection. God's self-disclosure or "revelation" was progressive, much like the beauty and scent of a rose is progressively observed and sensed as the petals "progressively" unfold. 

The major prophetic periods of the Old Testament were Moses, Elijah/Elisha and the writing prophets. Each period was prefaced by God disclosing Himself as Creator, Redeemer, Sovereign King and as a plurality of Persons united in one being. 

400 years would transpire between the close of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew. Although scholars often refer to this period as the "silent years" (due to no composition of Divinely-inspired books), nonetheless, God was preparing history for the arrival of Jesus Christ. 14 non-inspired Jewish writings, called "the Apocrypha", give us an idea of what the Jewish people were thinking in the centuries leading up to Christ's first coming or "advent". We can tell from that body of writings that the Jews were looking for their Messiah. Once Jesus came on the scene, He represented the final and decisive revelation of God in history (see Hebrews 1:1-2). The New Testament stands as the final collection of inspired documents expounding the life, death, resurrection, ascension and soon-to-return of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew, Jesus is Royalty.

In Mark, Jesus is Servant.

In Luke, Jesus is Perfect Man.

In John, Jesus is truly God in the flesh.

In Acts, He is preached among the nations.

In Romans, all who believe on Him are declared "righteous" or "justified".

1 Corinthians emphasizes Jesus as the believer's Sanctifier by His Holy Spirit.

2 Corinthians reminds us that God's glory is revealed on the face of Jesus Christ.

Galatians tells us that He is the true Gospel.

Ephesians reveals He is the believer's inheritance.

Philippians details how the Son as truly God came to experience life as truly man in His incarnation.

Colossians expounds on Jesus as the exalted, ascended Lord.

1 Thessalonians tells us Jesus is returning for His church.

2 Thessalonians describes how He will return to defeat the forces of evil.

1 Timothy unfolds Christ as the Shepherd of His church.

2 Timothy unfolds Christ as the theme of inspired, inerrant scripture.

Titus reveals how Jesus is our God and Savior.

Philemon emphasizes the importance of forgiving one another, just as Jesus did us on the cross.

Hebrews unfolds the glory of Jesus as our High Priest, exalted in the heavens. 

James reminds us that God is immutable, without shifting or variation of shadow.

1 Peter presents Jesus as our Chief Cornerstone.

2 Peter alerts us to Him returning in the glory of the Father.

1,2,3 John presents Christ as our beloved Master.

Jude promises that believers in Christ will have His preserving power to the end. 

Revelation is the final revealed book ever composed, portraying Jesus Christ as King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. 

The New Testament books focus their attention on expounding the Person and accomplished work of the Son of God. However, we must not forget that we see the work of the Person of the Holy Spirit carrying on the work of the Son following His ascension into Heaven in the Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is calling all kinds of people, from every nation, in every century of history, to place their trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Once the response of faith is given to the Gospel call of the Spirit, the "salvation accomplished" by the Son becomes the "salvation applied" by the Holy Spirit. 

Closing thoughts on thinking about God through the Bible

As we consider the survey we undertook in thinking about God through the books of the Bible, we've noted God's being, attributes, activities and identity. He is the immaterial, eternal, infinite, immutable, without parts, constant in His emotional life, immortal, omnipresent, omniscient, all-wise, all-good, holy, just, loving, merciful, transcendent yet immanent, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Completer of all things created and all persons that are redeemed in saving faith. God alone is able to create something from nothing, raise life from death and provide salvation. 

This One God is revealed in His identity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with all three Persons equal in power, glory and only differing by identity. Such an important exercise of thinking about God through the books of the Bible is what we call "Biblical Theology". Whenever we aim to think further about how we can organize such thoughts about God in a system that would provide a resource for practical efforts such as preaching, teaching and evangelism, we call such an effort "systematic theology". 

In order to evaluate whether our method of thinking about God through the Books of the Bible is on the right track, theologians have come to use a specific method of thinking about God called "Perfect Being Theology" - which will be the focus of our next post. 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Thinking about God through general revelation, religious experience and natural theology

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Acts 17:24-25 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us

Introduction: 

A.W. Tozer's classic book - "Knowledge of the Holy" begins with this most insightful quote: 

"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever
been greater than its idea of God".

How does one begin to think about and know about God? Two answers come to mind: 

1. Knowing about God through what is called "general revelation".

2. Knowing God through what is called "special revelation". 

In today's post, we will consider the first of these (as well as give some brief definitions). 

Knowing about and thinking about God through His general revelation in creation and the conscience.

"Knowledge about God" is accessible to all people. In the Old Testament we see a clear example of this through what theologians term, "general revelation", in Psalm 19:1-4 -

"The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. 4 Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun."

General revelation is called such because it is generally accessible to all people as much as knowledge of the external world or knowledge of other people having minds. Such general revelation is a feature of our world which is perceptible by our mental faculties (that is, reason, intention, the human will) which have the ability to draw conclusions about God's Divine nature through all He has made. 

Albert Einstein, the noted 20th century physicist, observes that the ability comprehend anything in our universe is indeed incomprehensible.  Whether observing the grandeur of the universe, watching a sunrise, listening to a beautiful piece of classical music or reflecting on what is meant by terms such as "beauty" and "the good-life", all count as places to discover God's general revelation. Why? Because God's general revelation operates on the basis of "truth", "goodness" and "beauty", which are germane qualities embedded in His very nature as God. 

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This "general revelation" by God is further expounded in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-20 -

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."

Such innate knowledge about God grants to every human being a base-line profile of the Creator, namely, 

1. God is the sum of His moral perfections. As the Supreme Moral Being, God is the source of moral standards that govern the human conscience - called in Romans 2:14-15 the "law of God" inscribed on the heart. 

2. God possesses such attributes as omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence or absolute perfections. Unless God is the absolute cause and Sustainer of the universe and life as we know it, there is no sufficient natural explanation to account for the order, meaning and purpose we rightly discern in our world.

This first level of "knowledge about God" comes to us through "general revelation" and is apprehended by people through what theologians call "common grace" (see Matthew 5:45, Acts 14:25, 17:22-25). As people respond to this general revelation of God, the mixture of His general revelation and the frailty of human thinking affected by the fall of Adam and Eve leads to people proposing all sorts of various religions. General revelation requires the special revelation of God through the Bible and Jesus to take us from mere "knowing about God" to "knowing God". 

Two routes of thinking about God from general revelation - religious experience and natural theology

Two sorts of responses are observed as one surveys how people interact with God's general revelation by His common grace working all around them in creation and the conscience. 

1. Religious experience of God through knowing about Him in general revelation and then coming to know Him in special revelation.

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The first way, and most common way, is by route of religious experience of God. Various sorts of religious experience can range from how people perceive God's general presence in the natural realm to the specific way He draws people to trust in Jesus through the hearing of God's Word - the Bible (compare Romans 10:8-17). As human beings relate to God's general revelation, to the degree people demonstrate an openness to truth, God will in turn make available to them further "light" through the special revelation of His word. Professor John Hick explains this first route of knowing about and thinking about God was exhibited by people in the Bible, as cited by William Lane Craig - 

"God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine . . . They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality. To them God was not . . . an idea adopted by the mind, but an experiential reality which gave significance to their lives."

As a Christian, I don’t believe in the God of the Bible because He is a conclusion to a series of theistic arguments (which I'll mention near the end of today's post). Granted, I find such arguments providing a secondary foundation for why the God of the Bible best explains reality and human experience. Instead, I am a Christian because God was apprehended by me in a moment of trust He initiated when I was a ten-year-old boy, sitting in a Sunday School class hearing the Gospel of salvation. 

It was only through God leading me to Himself through the Gospel that I discovered how He had made the way for me to be deemed "good enough" by placing simple trust in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-9). 

The work God did in my heart enabled me to journey from what I had "known about Him" in general revelation to my need to "know Him" through the special revelation of the Bible and Jesus. The prophet Jeremiah quotes God in Jeremiah 29:13 

“You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart”.

James in the New Testament writes these words in James 4:8a 

“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” 

It is from this transformative  experience 35 years ago, and several subsequent, ongoing experiences with God through the Bible, that I have found certainty in knowing God and thinking about Him. 

2. Knowing about and thinking about God through reflections upon general revelation or what is called "natural theology".

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Experience of God is one way a person can have genuine knowledge of God. However, there is a secondary route in which we can discover that belief in God is most reasonable. Throughout Christian history, various older thinkers (such as Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas) and newer ones (Brian Leftow, William Lane Craig, Ed Feser) have taken the general revelation of God in creation and the conscience and offered systematic reflections of what we can know about God through what is called "natural theology". 

Natural theology will often include various theistic arguments or "proofs" for God's existence such as "the moral argument", "the cosmological argument" and several other types of well-reasoned arguments. Natural theology does not deliver "certainty" of God, but rather the level of knowledge that counts as rational grounds for belief in God - namely, "beyond a reasonable doubt" or "high degree of probability" in comparison to arguments against God. 

Natural theology gives us a "second route" for thinking about God. A well-rounded natural theology will approximate the clearest and surest revelation of God that we find in the Bible (even though natural theology draws from observations largely independent from the Bible). Just as general revelation is designed by God to prepare the unbeliever to respond positively to His special revelation in the Bible and Jesus, the human efforts behind natural theology can pave the way for understanding why belief in the God of the Bible is most reasonable, and thus potentially remove any obstacles that stand in the way. 


Closing thoughts

In today's post, we considered knowing about and thinking about God through what is called "general revelation" and its attendant routes of "religious experience" and the project of "natural theology". In the next post, we will continue by looking at how we can think about and know God through the "special revelation" of Himself in the Bible and Jesus, as well as the project of what is known as "Perfect-being" theology.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

How to show and know that Jesus raised from the dead

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Matthew 28:6 "He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying."

Introduction:

What happened on that first Easter morning? In this post, I aim to present the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Many people may not realize that the resurrection of Jesus Christ occupies a place in historical investigation. Think of what follows as more of an outline than a comprehensive treatment. It is hoped that this post aids those wanting to go further in their understanding of the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Some good resources to consider

Before we get underway, let me point the reader to reputable websites that specialize in the subject of Christ's resurrection from the dead. The websites feature key defenders of the Christian faith to whom I'm indebted in gathering together a working outline for presenting the case that presents the proposal: "God raised Jesus from the dead":

1. www.reasonablefaith.org

2. www.garyhabermas.com

3. www.crossexamined.org

In addition to the above websites, some amazing recent computer-animated videos illustrate a great argument for Christ's resurrection with regards to the facts, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qhQRMhUK1o&t=5s and the explanations of the empty tomb, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SbJ4p6WiZE&t=50s

Great books are available that can help readers begin their journey in studying this subject. Other topics related to defending the Christian faith are also included in the following resources:

1. “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?”, a booklet by William Lane Craig 

2. “On Guard”, an introductory apologetics text book by William Lane Craig

3. “Case For Easter”, by Lee Strobel

4. "The Baker Handbook of Apologetics", edited by Norm Geisler

Knowing and showing that Jesus raised from the dead. 

When I say “knowing”, I mean in the words of the hymn: 

“You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart”. 

This first way of understanding what occurred on that first Easter is reliable and is how all people arrive at a certainty of what took place. When I say "certainty", the definition of theologian Herman Bavinck comes to mind: "certainty is a state of mind settled upon the object of one's perception." When faith or "trust" occurs, the heart and mind come to have a settled state with regards to Jesus' life, death and resurrection on their behalf. 

This way of “knowing” the risen Christ is obtained with or without “showing” the event to be the case. Philosophers refer to such knowledge as "properly basic beliefs". Examples of properly basic beliefs include knowledge of the external world, other minds and memories of the past - all of which is rational to hold to without evidence. Some thinkers would include the innate knowledge of God as a properly basic belief. Such an observation ought to comfort readers, since most people in the world don’t have time nor access to the resources that one would utilize in historical research. 

Whenever we engage in presenting a case like the one outlined below, it can be viewed as a "second-line of defense". The New Testament heartily supports this experiential understanding of the risen Christ for the believer. Phil. 3:10-11 

“that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” 

The above covers "knowing God" on a personal level. So what about "showing" the resurrection of Jesus to be the case? When I say “showing”, I mean presenting the historical case that demonstrates that the premise: “God raised Jesus from the dead” is the best explanation of the empty tomb. 

How we can show that Christ’s resurrection from the dead was a historical event. 

To do this, we need to:

a. First express the facts surrounding the resurrection. 

b. Secondly, list the criteria used in judging which explanation of the facts best explains “what happened”. 

c. Thirdly, the typical explanations of those facts (naturalistic explanations and the one supernatural proposal: “God raised Jesus from the dead”). 

d. Then lastly, why the proposal: “God raised Jesus from the dead” is the best explanation of the facts. 

The Christian can readily affirm that "dead men don't rise naturally from the dead". However, in proposing that God raised Jesus from the dead, we are stating that the only way a resurrection could be brought about is by a supernatural, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God as referenced by Jesus Himself. 

When skeptics refuse to allow the possibility of the miraculous, the objection raised is not historical, but rather philosophical in nature. Including a supernatural explanation (i.e. "God raised Jesus from the dead") in the survey of explanations for what happened on that first Easter morning is part of the historical investigative process. 

What are the facts surrounding the resurrection event?

a. What do we mean by “fact”? An event of the past that is multiply attested in several sources and which is viewed as such by most historians living today. Gary Habermas did a landmark study, surveying over 2,000 publications by scholars of all stripes written from 1975 to present. (Gary Habermas, “Experience of the Risen Jesus: The Foundational Historical Issue in the early proclamation of the resurrection,” Dialogue 25 (2006): 292.). 

Wherever there were at least 75% agreements, that counted as a “fact”. The facts we will look at today are shared among 90% (per Habermas’ reckoning).

b. What are the primary sources for Easter? When it comes to multiple attestation (i.e. multiple, independent sources), we possess several primary sources for these facts: Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20; the materials particular to Matthew /Luke and 1 Corinthians 15:1-6. 

It must be noted that people must not dismiss these sources due to their being “in the Bible”. Before there was a gathering together of such sources into the bundle we call the “New Testament”, they were independently written. Although it is right for the Christian to rightly see these documents as inerrant scripture, historians approach them as reliable sources for the historical events surrounding the historical Jesus of the 1st century. For the purposes of the foregoing argument, we will approach the New Testament documents as reliable sources about Jesus (even though this author holds to Biblical inerrancy, which is another topic, for another post). 

Non-believing historians regard the Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 as reliable sources, despite whatever their personal beliefs might be toward these documents. The only people that try to pass off the Gospels and Paul’s letters are internet skeptics or people not familiar with even a general sense of how historical research is done in New Testament studies.

c. Four main facts.  For the resurrection of Jesus, four facts emerge: 

i. honorable burial, 

ii. discovery of the empty tomb by women followers, 

iii. the sudden shift to faith by the disciples 

iv. Jesus’ post-mortem appearances.

What criteria are used when evaluating various explanations for the facts at hand?

a. It is one thing to list the facts, and have most everyone agree that these are the facts at hand. However, whenever it comes to how to explain “what happened”, the disagreements emerge. 

b. Historian C. Behan McCullagh, in his book: “Justifying Historical Descriptions” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), notes several criteria used by historians when investigating the best explanation for any event and its attendant facts. Just as a parent uses criteria to discern how to settle a recent set of events reported to them by their children, historians use standard criteria as well. I've listed the specific criteria in the end notes for interested readers.1 

Naturalistic Explanations of Easter morning

Naturalism is that worldview which asserts that physical matter is the ultimate and fundamental basis for all reality. Hence, naturalism denies miracles, God's existence and an immaterial reality outside our universe, since the universe is, according to the late naturalist Carl Sagan: "all there is, was and ever will be."

When it comes to surveying the pool of naturalistic explanations of what happened on Easter, we can assess what are called: "full-tomb hypotheses" and "empty-tomb hypotheses". Naturalism is a philosophical view point that asserts that physical objects, physical laws or material properties are the only things that exist. For sake of space, I will briefly list the most popular naturalistic hypotheses with a sample of their weaknesses in the end notes below for interested readers. 2  


Why the hypothesis: “God raised Jesus from the dead” is the best explanation of the facts.

The explanation proclaimed by the disciples: "God raised Jesus from the dead" has consistently shown itself to best explain the above facts. Naturalistic theories fall short due to not adequately accounting for why the disciples switched from skepticism to faith. Furthermore, such explanations cannot provide plausibly consistent explanations of the empty tomb that doesn't conflict with known details of 1st century Jewish and Greco-Roman life. 

For the sake of space, I have included a more detailed explanation of why the resurrection explanation fulfills standards of historical investigation in the following end note for interested readers. 3


Final appeal to place your trust in the risen Jesus, so that you can “know” that He lives.

In this post I have given a sketch of how one may "show" that the proposal: "God raised Jesus from the dead" is the best explanation for answering the question: "what happened on that first Easter morning". However, just knowing "about" the resurrection is not enough to reconcile you to God. Christian salvation promises that one can personally know the risen Christ. John 17:3 reminds us: 

"This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."

As we close out this post, let me briefly make the appeal for any reader that has never trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord to do so. The scriptures below explain how one can know for certain, by faith, that Jesus raised from the dead and how He can become Savior and Lord of their life.

Ephesians 2:8-9 "For by grace are you saved through faith, this is not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast." 

Romans 10:8-10 "But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation."

You can know the risen Christ! Not just as having probably raised from the dead (that’s as far as the above argument will get you), but having certainty of Him having died on the cross and risen for you. As Hebrews 11:1 reminds us: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the certainty of things not seen."

Endnotes:


1. The following derives from William L. Craig’s booklet: “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?”

i. Explanatory scope: How much of the evidence does the explanation or hypothesis explain better than its rivals.

ii. Explanatory power: Does the given explanation make the evidence more probable as having occurred than rival explanations

iii. Plausibility. How well does the given explanation fit with other known background beliefs of that time period.

iv. Least contrived. Whichever explanation of the facts adopts the fewest new beliefs apart from independent evidence is most likely the correct explanation.

v. Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. Whichever explanation can withstand the scrutiny of comparison with other well-established beliefs is the more probable explanation. 

vi. The best explanation meets the first five conditions so much better than its rival explanations, that there is little chance of the other rival explanations being the better candidate for telling “what happened”.

2. We can note the following naturalistic hypotheses under two headings:

a. Full Tomb Hypotheses: Explaining the events of Easter with a body in the tomb

i. Hallucination hypothesis = the disciples hallucinated the risen Christ. Doesn’t adequately explain post-mortem appearances. People that think they have seen a dead loved-one knows that the person is dead. The disciples' post-mortem visions of Jesus resulted in their message: "He is alive"! Hallucinations are individual experiences. The Gospel accounts and 1 Corinthians 15 record episodes where the post-resurrected Christ physically appeared to multiple people.

ii. Apparent death / mystery twin = Jesus switched with a look alike. Islam, Surah 4:157. Requires contrived beliefs (maybe a twin-brother, maybe they found a look-alike, they tricked guards, and so-forth). Doesn’t explain empty tomb nor post-mortem appearances.

iii. Visionary hypothesis = not a physical Jesus, but a “vision” only. Doesn’t explain how 500 people could see Him. Also, appearances are accompanied by physical phenomena. Doesn’t cover empty tomb.  

b. Empty Tomb Hypotheses: Explaining the events of Easter that include the empty tomb

i. Swoon Hypothesis = Jesus didn’t die, He fainted revived in the cool tomb. Doesn’t take seriously the brutality of crucifixion. Disconfirmed by what we know of crucifixion. 

ii. Conspiracy = disciples stole the body. Jewish leaders stole body. The Christian movement wouldn’t had gotten off the ground, disciples switch to faith is not explained. Jewish leaders could had ended movements by producing a body. They claim disciples stole body. 

iii. Hoax = Disciples lied. No one knowingly dies for a lie. Hoaxes fizzle out within a few years. 

iv. Wrong tomb.  The women followed. Joseph of Arimathea would not had been a Christian invention. The guards were situated at the tomb (Matthew 28:4). Pilate would had known where the tomb was, since he decreed for it to be sealed. These observations demonstrate, on historical grounds, that the location of the tomb was known by both followers and opponents of Jesus. 

3. So why does the hypothesis: "God raised Jesus from the dead" outperform its naturalistic rivals? The following criteria are fulfilled by it in contrast to its rivals.

i. Explanatory scope: How much of the evidence does the explanation or hypothesis explain better than its rivals. It alone explains four main facts.


ii. Explanatory power: Does the given explanation make the evidence more probable as having occurred than rival explanations. It best handles the facts. Furthermore, all other naturalistic theories break down here.


iii. Plausibility. How well does the given explanation fit with other known background beliefs of that time period. Jewish beliefs of resurrection as physical. Early church’s beginnings.


iv. Least contrived. Whichever explanation of the facts adopts the fewest new beliefs apart from independent evidence is most likely the correct explanation. Only one extra belief is need: God exists.


v. Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. Whichever explanation can withstand the scrutiny of comparison with other well-established beliefs is the more probable explanation. Nothing precludes this. To say: “miracles are impossible” is not a historical objection, but a philosophical one.


vi. The best explanation meets the first five conditions so much better than its rival explanations, that there is little chance of the other rival explanations being the better candidate for telling “what happened”. This hypothesis best fulfills the first five criteria.  

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Praying by way of God's attributes - prayer and Divine simplicity

Image result for prayer

Romans 11:33-36 "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen."

Introduction:

It wasn't to long ago that I found myself having one of those days that left me anxious about a whole host of areas in life. As I prayed, I asked God to help me arrive at a point of peace about the situations in question (Philippians 4:6-7). As I continued to pray and wrestle with the thoughts going through my mind, a sudden idea occurred: "why not select an attribute of God and pray about the situations through that attribute?" I don't doubt that at that very moment, the Holy Spirit was illuminating me to an insight. So, I focused on God's attribute of "Divine Impassibility", which refers to the way in which His emotional life, unlike my own, is not subject to sudden shifts due to the response to life's circumstances. Within that word "impassible" is the root-word "passion" which speaks of the particular way in which human emotions function out of response to things. The Apostle Paul had to remind his listeners in Acts 14:15 

"and saying, 'Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them."

Paul is saying in this passage that he and his fellow laborers were no different from them in the realm of possessing "like-passions". Paul urged this point upon his audience to stave off unsolicited worship of him as one of their deities. Paul's words about himself and his ministry partners contrast with the true and living God that doesn't have "up-and-down emotions" (i.e. an impassible God). 

God's emotional life is consistent, always in operation and unimpeded. The classical doctrine of Divine impassibility teaches us that God, in terms of His emotional-life, cannot be any worse or any better, since He is always at His best and thus, never varying. If for anything, this teaching shows us that God is far more emotional than we as human beings could ever hope to be!

So I sought the Lord at that moment as a God that I knew was always loving, always merciful, always opposed to sin, always happy with Himself, unchanging in His love for me and always loyal in knowing about my circumstance. Do you know that the instant I prayed that prayer, an enormous peace came over me! Since that day, I have pondered on what it would be like to base one's prayer-life on the attributes of God.  Thus, today's post on God’s attributes as a way of strengthening the Christian’s prayer-life. 

What are God's attributes?

An attribute is a quality or characteristic of God that describes Him. To be more exact, an attribute of God is a perfection that is an expression of His essence as God. To take but one example, we read in 1 John 4:8 that "God is love". For God, love is not just an attribute that God possesses as a feature, but rather, love is God's very essence expressing itself as the perfection of love. In other words - "God is love", incapable of being less or more in how that expression could ever be express from the standpoint of what He is as God. Another example is found in Psalm 99:5, were we read: "holy is He". God doesn't merely "have" holiness", He is Holy". Holiness is a perfection that is an expression of His very essence.  

As we think about God and His attributes, all of His attributes are rooted in His very essence. No one single attribute is better than the other. All of them, without exception, capture and grant to us all of who God is (as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and what God is (the One, undivided God). Concerning that latter statement of "what God is", we come to find that God is indeed the "undivided God" or what theologians refer to as "Divine simplicity". Thus, in the above examples, God is "lovingly-holy" and "holy-loving".

Divine simplicity and the believer's prayer-life

Divine simplicity means God is not composed of parts, whether we speak of attempting to separate God's attributes from His Divine being or presupposing some cause that brought about God. Put another way, Divine simplicity means every attribute equally grants us God, His eternal perfections and identity.  When we bring Divine simplicity down to the most practical level of prayer, we refer to how God is never at odds with Himself, and thus undivided when we come to Him in prayer. One writer has noted that due to God not being composed of parts, that means that when I'm falling apart, God can hold me together by virtue of His Divine simplicity.

Divine simplicity may very well be an attribute which is hardly discussed today, yet, it can help us in gaining confidence in God in prayer. How is it that we can pray to God according to His Divine simplicity?

1. Praying through Divine simplicity affirms we have God’s undivided attention. Romans 11:33-35

Sometimes Debi, my wife, will ask: "are you here?"; because my mind is thinking in different directions. We all have “divided-attention”. We all, like every other created thing, can never be all nor give all of ourselves to everything. God alone can because He is "Divinely-simple”. Wherever you see Biblical phrases like “God is” or “is He” or God acting out an attribute, that 
points us to God’s divine simplicity. Consider the following passages: 

1. Psalm 99:5 “Holy is He”. 

2. Malachi 3:6 “I the Lord do not change”. 
    
3. James 1:17 “…with whom there is no variation or shifting of shadow.” 

4. 1 John 4:8 “….God is love”.   

The Apostle Paul in Romans 11:33-36 indicates how God is undivided with respect to His abilities to give attention. Paul references God's Wisdom, Knowledge and ways as undivided and thus - unfading. My favorite passage in all the New Testament hints at God's Divine simplicity, namely Romans 11:36 - "for from Him, and to Him and through Him are all things". 

Therefore, no matter what I am praying for, I realize that to God, past, present and future are one-big eternal now with respect to His omniscience, and that particular attribute grants me access to all His other attributes which He steadily applies in bringing about His will in my life. God's Divinely simple nature as "the undivided God" means I have His undivided attention. But notice also how this attribute strengthens our faith in prayer...

2. Praying through Divine simplicity affirms we have God’s undivided ability at hand. Romans 11:36 

No one is good at everything. Even in our universe, we see varying levels of stars, things wearing out, things changing. God’s ability alone never diminishes. His attributes, or perfections, never fade. Such thoughts grant confidence in prayer. How?   Practically, as mentioned above, God won’t ever fall-apart because He has "no parts" as defined by the doctrine of Divine simplicity. In other words, God's essence or "what He is" and existence or "that He is" are not divided and are not separated from His perfections. 

As Divinely simple, God is incapable of improvement and without need of anything. When it comes to prayer, God is our all sufficiency in prayer because    He needs nothing to make Him better. We on the other hand need God, since without Him and His perfection of omnipotent, I can never have that endless source of strength needed to get through everyday life.

Again, certain passages imply to us God's Divine simplicity by the way they mention other attributes. For example, God's immutability or His inability to change, as stated in Numbers 23:19 

“God is not a man, that He should     lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? 

Or again, the prophet Malachi writes in Malachi 3:6 

“For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed."

One more example in the New Testament, James 1:17 

“For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed."

Since God's Divine simplicity grants me access to every attribute that He is as God, this means that at any given point, I have all of God's unending ability to bear on the things I pray about in everyday life. Put another way, Divine simplicity teaches that since every attribute equally grants us God, we have perfections and Personal identity involved with us every step of the way.

Closing thoughts

Today we emphasized praying by way of God's attributes. We focused upon God's Divine simplicity, which refers to God being "undivided", whether in terms of His attributes, being or existence. Such a God grants us all the confidence we need in prayer. As Divinely simple, God grants to us His undivided attention and undivided power by how we have accesses to all that He is and who He is in prayer.