Category Archives: From Under the Selly Oak

God (Letter 12)



Dangerous, old fruit!

You make an excellent point that the formal, established doctrine of ‘The Trinity,’ is unhelpful at the outset. We are meaning, after all, to present the Biblical God to those who have little or no interest in the church; so we should start from the ‘ground up,’ so to speak. However, even if you disregard the dogma of the historical Church at this point, the Biblical data does seem to hint that God is multi-faceted or even living in community. For example, I reference God’s words in Genesis when he resolves to make man ‘in our image.’ But I concede to you that this is perhaps, overall, a subject for another time.

When it comes to defining and understanding God philosophically, there is so much in the Bible narrative about God declaring, ‘My ways are far above yours…you only see in part, one day in full,’ and so on, that a certain amount needs to be taken by faith, or in other words, at face value, with the attitude of a child, as Jesus taught. I am not seeking to devalue asking the deeper questions, only to remind us that we can only know God by faith, which is when we in effect say, “I don’t know all the details and perhaps never will, but I think this is real, so let’s go for it!”

Turning to our big question, yes I think that God is innately loving, or to use more helpful synonyms, innately giving, sacrificial and servant-hearted. As you say, it is tough one to call, but as we have discussed, our creation might not be the first or only ‘world,’ through which and into which God has expressed this love of his. The Old Testament poets certainly hint at other ‘spheres,’ and this is the fascinating premise for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales: he wrote that, rather than a straight Christian allegory, Narnia was the answer to a hypothetical question of ‘what would Christ look like if he showed up in another world?’ As you rightly outlined, the other qualities flow from his love. Also, remember that the same apostle who defines God as ‘love,’ also defines him as ‘light,’ which I take to mean truth, clarity and without any hint of double-mindedness.

I really strongly agree with your point that systematic doctrine has to come second to Biblical data: too often the Evangelical Church has sought to ‘straighten out’ God and so neglected key Biblical themes. The one value I think doctrine does have in the Christian life is to ground the likes of me: as a serial doubter, ‘blown about on the waves,’ and never trusting God or taking him at his word, it helps me to rest in key, objective truths I believe God to have shown me (to take a slightly silly but safely uncontroversial example, God has promised always to be with me, so any Biblical story or life experience that seems to suggest the opposite needn’t worry me).

You rightly challenge my explanation of evil with the Genesis story. Could it be that Satan had already fallen from heaven at this point (which is outlined in the OT and NT), so setting himself up as God’s enemy? And then Adam is subsequently created into a universe which already features God’s adversary?

SMASHY, my dear friend,

Sir Tom


God (Letter 11)



Sir Tom, Old Bean,

Let us clear a few things up before we go on.

Firstly I think we should steer clear of the Trinity for now so as not to muddy the waters (and that doctrine has some muddy waters to explore!) and I think it is something none of us have a clear understanding of and therefore not a good way of explaining God at this point.

Secondly, you say that you have not considered your faith philosophically, but all doctrine is philosophical. If you can even a quick squizz about the Nicene Creed you’ll see ‘Neoplatonism’ and ‘Stoicism’ bandied about. Ultimately for us to understand the things of God we have to think philosophically. What I’m saying is, I think you have without realising.

So, back to the big question: What are God’s characteristics that do not have to exist simply in relation to us?

Well what are some of his characteristics?

Love, justice, mercy, anger, wrath, compassion, righteousness, jealousy; what of these would we say are innate and which are dependent?

If one was stranded on a desert island could you be called compassionate? Or righteous? Do these qualities only exist when there is someone to be compassionate or righteous to? If you are alone then the only just thing to do is whatever you want. Whatever you do will be just because you are the definition of Justice.

It is a tough call because we can never see ourselves outside of a society to know whether justice or jealousy etc are innate characteristics.

Love is innate, I believe. I think you can trace back a lot of your attributes to whether you are, at heart, a loving person. The Bible says that God is love and I believe that that is a characteristic one can have whether alone or in community. I think it is possible for God to be a loving entity whether creation exists or not. An innately loving being is going to be a just and compassionate being when confronted with society.

So why is this important?

  1. it doesn’t exist and that’s madness.
  2. Our current understanding of God comes from the Early Church Fathers who were both Catholic (we wouldn’t accept their teachings on Apostolic succession today, why should we accept their other doctrines?) and Neoplatonists.
  3. I think it affects our understanding of other doctrines such as the Trinity and the existence of evil. For too long we have placed doctrine as our blueprint and twisted and stretched the Bible to fit over it, rather than the other way around.

Finally to address two other points of yours; I agree with your explanation of the existence of evil, though I feel the matter is complicated with God’s admission to a knowledge of good and evil in Genesis.  The idea that God could exist in a space with other similar beings that are promised not to interfere in this Universe (thus making God true when He says there are no other Gods) is something I considered for the last letter, but left it out as I thought it was hardcore philosophy enough already.

SMASH

Dangerous

 


God (Letter 10)



Dangerous old chap,

Apologies for my tardy response. This is mainly down to the fact that I am certainly no philosopher and in fact, have never really interacted with ‘God’ or ‘faith’ from a philosophical standpoint. Although I experienced a definite, ‘one-minute-I-thought-it-was-a-load-of-rubbish-the-next-I-believed,’ conversion to Christianity, I guess my Christian upbringing had prepared me to accept the Christian God unthinkingly in a sense and I was used to a kind of authoritarian, top-down belief in an afterlife and a deity. That said, many many people do ask questions about faith in a philosophical manner, so you raise some very worthy questions, which I will attempt to tackle.

I think God certainly exists and flourishes independent of anything around him, whether that be his creation or his dwelling place (wherever or whatever that may be). He is the pure essence of goodness, graciousness and so on and much of these attributes are expressed within the Trinity, towards the other parts of the Godhead (as a British preacher has clumsily put it: ‘God’s a community’).

So I see it that everything within God’s creation is an expression of these attributes. Of course this raises the question of how evil (or at least the choice to do evil) could have been created by a good God, but my answer to this would go something like this: true, free love involves the possibility to choose not to love. So God created beings with the freedom to walk away from him, which they duly did and God already had a rescue plan up his sleeve.

Aside from Trinitarian theology (the argument that God exists as three, so that love and grace can exist within him, as the three members of the Godhead express their love for one another), there has to also be the possibility that ‘there are others.’ In the Bible, we have the story of how God made and reached out to the inhabitants of our world. But what if there are other worlds, other spheres, other beings we know nothing of and within which God existed and exists quite separate from us? So much of the Bible is God saying to us, “my ways are above yours…now you see dimly, one day you’ll see in full.” What if there are other modes of operation, other levels of the universe which we have yet to discover and perhaps never will, til the end?


God (Letter 9)



Sir Tom,

SMASHY

Hope all is well with you. So we turn our (probably greatest) minds (of the 21st Century) to the notion of God. And I say notion because it’s fascinating to consider what we really know about Him. I think a ‘notion’ is perhaps all we can get.

Here’s where it gets interesting. As far as I can find, there is no standard theology or doctrine of God outside of creation. Meaning that all of our concepts of God’s character are in contrast to His creation.

Consider this: is God perfect? No. Not in the way we consider perfection; before creation He was perfect because He was the only thing to exist, after creation He is perfect because He is the measuring stick. Does that make sense? Perhaps goodness is easier to contend with. The Bible says God is the ultimate in goodness, but surely this is only because He is the definition of goodness. He literally cannot be bad, because anything He does or is is the definition of goodness.

The point here is that if we were to go through the characteristics of God, how many of them can we say exist without creation?

I hope you have your philosophical hat on because we need to go somewhere else at this point…

Before creation was God the only thing to exist or did he exist within a space? Think about it, in terms of pure theology the first is right, but in terms of working theology the second is right. I say this because we generally follow the idea of God being in Heaven and therefore existing in space (though not time). Think of a piece of paper, either God is the piece of paper or God is a drawing on the piece of paper

Why is this important? Well, I think there is a difference between a God that is without. A God that is without can be reactionary to the space around Him; He has a choice of how to be and thusly chooses to be just, good etc. A God that just is, is all that existed is defined not by choices, but, as said above, simply by His attributes. It comes down to this, Jesus was perfect because He lived within a space and chose to do God’s will, chose to live like God; but God has no choice, He just is, which isn’t perfection (though of course it is by default).

I think it has to be the latter, that only God existed otherwise the space around Him has an effect and therefore God is not what the Bible purports Him to be (though this raises the interesting idea that literally anything could exist, but God only tells us about Himself; everything we know about God comes from Him so we can never verify it’s truth).

It has interesting effects on our theology in terms of how could everything go so wrong? If He knows everything (due to perfection) then He would know that it was doomed to failure. What if, however, He did not know until after He had created?

Think about it, could God know anything other than Himself if only He existed? What about Genesis 3:22 where God says that man ‘has become like us, knowing good from evil’? Could God know such a concept of evil if only He existed and everything He is is good?

Another interesting thing to come from this is: where is creation. If we go back to the paper analogy and God is a drawing within the paper then He can create the Universe within another part of that paper; if, however, He is the paper then the Universe must exist within the fabric of God because you can’t draw a picture outside of the paper only on it. For Him to create the Universe outside of himself would be to create space outside of Himself which would necessitate space existing outside of Himself.

So we go back to our original question, what characteristics did God have before Creation? What characteristics can one have that are not dependent on others?

SMASH

Dangerous


The Bible (Letter 8)



Dangerous, old boy!

I think we’re largely agreed on the fact that we should present the Bible as ‘reliable, trustworthy,’ rather than “100% perfect, without flaw, contradiction,” etc. I take on board your note of caution, however, about the dangers of challenging inerrancy. After all, a great number of the heroes of our faith throughout history believed in something like inerrancy, so that’s good enough for me. Moreover, Jesus himself and the Apostles held a literal understanding of many of the more controversial parts of the Jewish Scriptures. I think you’re right that we should steer clear of questioning the Bible’s authority and make the focus of our ongoing discussion: ‘the question of purpose…what do we (or perhaps should we) use the Bible for?’

Turning to that question now, here are several angles we could take:

1.) First, your point that ‘our understanding of God is limited.’ If we present to unbelievers the truth that ‘God’s ways are high above ours,’ and make the point that, as God’s creations, we need guidance, illumination, or (to use a bit of Christian jargon), ‘revelation,’ to understand our creator, then the Bible exists partly to help us in our search. It’s there to sharpen our understanding, challenge our preconceptions and show us Christ.

2.) The Bible exists to act as an objective arbitrator when Christians (or others) differ in their opinions and understandings. As an extension of point one, if we are naturally limited in our understanding of God, then we are going to draw different conclusions from time to time. Instead of relying only on our subjective perspectives and fighting, we should all submit to God’s objective truth as set forth in the Scriptures (easier said than done!).

3.) Christianity is essentially a witness testimony that something real, tangible and historical occurred in 1st century Palestine. The first apostles witnessed Jesus’ resurrection and handed it down through the generations to us. As such, the Bible exists to tell us about this (and other) historical events: it is a record of what God has done for us.

4.) The Bible reminds us about God’s grace and steers us away from religion, but showing us that flawed, messed-up people can still be used by God. Rather than a religious textbook, it is an account of the lives of men and women who have walked with God, warts and all.

I hope that helps as a starting point for answering your question!

SMASHY

Sir Tom


The Bible (Letter 7)



Sir Tom,

SMASH!

I think your 3 points are really the formation of, in terms of a backbone, the episode.

I’m not sure how we tackle point 1 without tackling society’s philosophy. A greater issue as postmodernism/subjectivism is not a philosophy that is overt. Our generation(s?) and younger would not admit (or ever think about) that they hold to a philosophy of any kind. Ergo, it’s tough to get them to change it. The other issue there is that people don’t like being told what to do, or, more so, what to do and how to do it.

I think that’s it! Not reliability, but relevance. As we talk through what the Bible is we need to show that it’s still relevant. A subjective generation will still take on things they feel are relevant to them.

Point 3 is very interesting, isn’t it. As with point 1 it’s hard to get Christians to understand this because they don’t see it. If you told them they worshiped the Bible, they would simply disagree and say they use the Bible to worship God. This is something I hope to discuss on this month’s Stuff Podcast (also on the Bible!).

Point 2 is linked into the question of how we read the Bible. Can we really take it all as words from God or does it make more sense as a handbook? As you say it’s complex and sometimes baffling. Again this is more the realms of the Stuff podcast, but it is good to have in our minds. I think for us the question is of purpose. What do we (or perhaps should we) use the Bible for?

If someone is listening to the podcast to grasp the fundamentals of the faith, then what part does the Bible play? How can it help us in our faith and in our life? Is it still relevant or outdated?

It vexes me because to question inerrancy is basically to question Christianity in it’s present form. To reshape theology as we know it. That’s a big call. Are we up to it? Should we be doing it?

Just a note on whether we question parts of the Bible that do not gel with God’s character. I think this is dangerous as it relies on our understanding of God’s character which is very limited. We must remember that we have no place to cry unjust or unfair; God can do what He likes with His creations in the same way we can build and destroy anything we want when we play with Lego. It is not for the bricks to decide.

Peace

D

 


The Bible (Letter 6)



Dangerous,

Given our remit (to tackle the fundamentals of Christianity afresh, for the benefit of outsiders to the faith) this is one of the most vital discussions we need to have. I say this because ‘The Bible,’ itself often constitutes a stumbling block to would-be Christians. I have had at least three discussions with unbelieving friends over the years, in which they have effectively told me: “I would be a Christian if it wasn’t for the Bible.” Why is this? I would suggest three underlying reasons:

1.) In our Post-truth culture, people are extremely wary of absolutists and especially absolutists who hold to ancient Scriptures. I think the fear many people have is that Christians, Muslims or others hold to outdated teachings in an unthinking way, holding their emotions and intellects at arm’s length. In response, our reading of the Bible needs to engage emotions and intellect.

2.) Let’s be honest, the Bible is complex and at face value, its moral lessons are baffling. Examples include the perplexing Levitical code and the Apostle Paul’s apparent disdain for women. I say ‘at face value,’ because I think one of the lessons we need to learn is that it’s OK to read the Bible carefully and intelligently, rather than from a confrontational, simplistic, “this I know ‘cos the Bible tells me so,” stance. But nevertheless, I think people are interested in God, but sometimes put off by the Bible.

3.) Some Christians give the (misguiding) impression that the Bible ITSELF is God, rather than Jesus. You can’t put the cart before the horse: I only grew to love the Bible after my Christian conversion. Beforehand, I remember telling my Dad, “the Bible is dead to me,” because it was. You can only love God’s word when you first love God. So I think unbelievers are frankly baffled by Christians’ devotion for the good book. We need to push Jesus first, Bible second.

With all this in mind and turning to your two questions, I think we need to be upfront with believers that although the Bible is ‘reliable,’ and ‘trustworthy,’ it is also troublesome and you can still be a Christian while living and walking with uncertainty about the Scriptures. If you give people an ultimatum – it’s either completely perfect, easy and infallible or it’s not – you’ll likely put people off. In other words, as you have said, ‘the Bible is true, separate from inerrancy.’

So to your second question. I would be open to more radical voices in the Evangelical fold who are moving towards an altogether fresh approach to the question of ‘how we read the Bible.’ For example, if the Bible attributes an action to God which really seems to jar with the character of God as revealed in Christ, could we consider that the writers of the Bible falsely attributed that action. The best example are the so-called ‘genocide,’ passages where God apparently commands the Israelites to slaughter whole nations, ‘women and children,’ included. If you want to read more, Steve Chalke’s paper on the Scriptures (‘Restoring Confidence in the Bible’) is helpful and can be found on the ‘Oasis’ website. The drawback of this idea is clearly that it is subsequently difficult to define which accounts are reliable and which are not. But whatever the case, I agree that this is, as you say,’the big one.’ One approach as we move forward might be for you and I to target these so-called ‘difficult’ passages in our discussions.

Anyway, let me know what you think, great mate. SMASHY.

Sir Tom


The Bible (Letter 5)



Sir Tom,

So here we are again and as we focus this month on the Bible I think there are 2 things to keep in mind.

  1. Biblical reliability. This was why I wanted to do the Bible before Jesus, because when one talks about Jesus one uses the Bible; we talk about prophecies of His life and death, but they only work if we can believe that they are true.
  2. How do we read the Bible? This is the big one, isn’t it? What’s the purpose of the Bible? And that depends on our views of inerrancy, infallibility and Sola Scriptura.

So let’s unpack number 1, get on the same page (or at least know which pages we’re both on). My first big deal is Old Testament dating. I don’t see any issue with taking scholarly dating of the Bible (even though that disqualifies inerrancy) because scholars agree that the books of the OT are based on earlier writings. I don’t want to go too far down this road, but it does lead to 2 interesting points. Firstly, there’s no need. If they’re made up then you only need to date them to their earliest manuscript. Secondly, where is the REAL Israelite history?

So we know that the Bible is reliable because the claims against the Bible don’t stack up. That being said a lot of the issues with the Bible in terms of contradictions are solved by taking the Document Hypothesis of multiple sources being used to construct the first books of the Bible.

So the problem is really not with the historicity of the Bible, but really with a rejection of magic. Magical stuff happens in the Bible, therefore it must be made up. That being said, I think anyone would be hard pressed to point to anything in history or science that says magic can’t happen.

I think we need to talk about this somewhat explicitly in the podcast, but I also think it needs to run through everything we say. The idea that at each point this is reliable, this is true. And true separate from inerrancy. I don’t think it is good enough just to say ‘yeah it’s all true and reliable because the Bible can’t be wrong’.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts,

Peace

Dangerous

 


What is Christianity? (Letter 4)



Hello Great Mate,

Thanks for your reply. I liked your own re-formulation of the Gospel, especially the idea of being ‘reunited with God and fitted back into his excellent plan’ (although I thought it might have read, ‘most excellent plan,’ a la Bill and Ted)! In fact that one word, ‘reunited,’ reminded me what was missing from my own definition in Letter 2. I haven’t incorporated our sin and the need for our relationship with God to be restored. Although Christians in the past may have been guilty of over-emphasising sin in their Gospel presentations, it is still an important part of the picture; it was for Jesus and it was for Paul. A good example is when Jesus heals the paralysed man and then tells him his sins are forgiven; not an obvious link, but Jesus was meeting both his physical and his eternal needs at once. When explaining the message to non-churched people in the West (some of whom may not have any idea of the concept of ‘sin’ at all), I think the most helpful atonement picture is ‘Reconciliation.’ You might tell them: ‘We were made to love God and be loved by him, but we have turned our backs and walked off. Through Jesus, God has now done everything needed for reconciliation to happen – everything is now ready!’ We need to retain sin in our Gospel preaching, because otherwise criminals and those with a bad conscience might consider themselves unworthy or disqualified.

I think you touched on a very important element when you wrote: ‘God expects us to live now like we will then (in the future, fully realised kingdom).’ Although I am the biggest advocate for a Christian message based around grace (undeserved love and blessing from God), I do think we too often present Christianity as a free ticket to heaven, with the implication that the life we live thereafter on earth is irrelevant. We need to teach: you receive God’s blessings (and entry into the kingdom) completely for free and then you are to live a life worthy of where God has placed you. There is one place in Scripture (1 Corinthians 3), where Paul does seem to teach that Christians will still be ‘saved,’ in the end, even if they haven’t pulled their weight, but otherwise the NT definitely advocates that we live the life too. Interestingly, I heard the Gospel the ‘other way around.’ As a younger, zealous Christian teenager and GAP-year-er (as you first knew me), I really did believe that I was earning my way…if I could only live up to Jesus’ standards then I could enjoy his blessings. This led to spiritual depression, and as a University student, God brought me to my knees so that I could hear the good news that ‘our faith is founded on what God has (freely) done for us, not on what we can do for him.’ Both grace and works are equally important.

We are in complete agreement about the idea that we are to ‘serve now in the Shadowlands and enjoy the Kingdom when the work is finished.’ Your words reminded me of Paul’s teaching in Romans 5: we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.’ In other words, this life is about character development and that will mean trials and suffering to undergo before we rest in his everlasting arms.

SMASHY,

Sir Tom

 


What is Christianity? (Letter 3)



Sir Tom,

I completely agree with everything you said. What makes me happy discussing this stuff with you is that you come at the topic from a different perspective than my own which helps to illuminate it.

Moving away from church and into the realms of new (or as yet) Christians I think your point about loving as we have loved etc is a good point. I cannot think of a verse in the Bible that tells us why we should be saved, rather it is taken as a given. You should have a relationship with God because you should. I think the reasons you gave are the closest to a eral reason. God has given should you too should give.

So here’s my thinking on what Christianity is (this comes straight from the script I was working on):

“So let’s refine the reason for becoming a Christian that puts God front and centre: it’s the belief that there is a God who created all things including us. He gave us free will and because of Satan’s influences we’ve used that free will to do our own thing and shun a relationship with God.

Think of life like a sport’s team, let’s say soccer. Everyone has their position and they work together to win. Then you have defenders deciding they want to be strikers and get the glory and midfielders who don’t trust the defenders and move up and down. Ultimately everyone is getting what they want, but they’re no longer working together to win the prize.

So, God came to Earth in the form of a man named Jesus and it was through His death and resurrection that we are reunited with God and fitted back into His excellent plan.”

See I think the point of Christianity comes back to purpose. God wanted something done so He created us with specific skills and talents to do that job. We’re only going to find true happiness and purpose in life when we get back into the machine, when we let go of our ego and accept we are a cog in a machine then we find purpose.

I disagree (slightly) with what you said about God having a plan to change the world, I think He knows it’s broken hence the New Heaven and New Earth. I think God has a good plan for them and wants us to get as many people into the Kingdom as possible. It’s not God’s intention that anyone should miss out, but by our own choice we deny the invitation. When we become Christians we accept entry into the Kingdom and God expects us to live like we will then. After all, if we can’t do it now (or at least try) how are we going to do it then?

A last thought: Verses like Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11 talk about God having a plan for us, but nowhere else does the Bible talk about plans in terms of something on the is Earth that is a blessing. Jesus constantly talks about being a servant and that the last will be first. I think that’s God’s plan, serve now in the Shadowlands and enjoy the Kingdom when the work is finished.

SMASHY

‘Dangerous’