Saturday, May 17, 2014

Predestination....Apostolic Style

While rifling through some passages on predestination and election the other day, in an attempt to set some thoughts down on paper (ok- on screen), I came across what was, for me, a remarkable realization.   I was never quite sure of how to think about predestination.  I was not comfortable with some deterministic view of everything that happens, including of salvation.  "If it happened, God did it," goes one type of logic.  Not buying that, really.

This is what I discovered. And I'm not sure if this has been written about before (most things have, I guess), but I've never heard this interpretation of this passage.  The passage is Ephesians 1 starting in verse 3:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 

So yeah, we're talking about having been "chosen," "predestined" for something- adoption, to the praise of his glorious grace. All this "before the foundation of the world."  Then it goes on:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.

So "we" have obtained an inheritance which was predestined for us, according to the purposes of God.  Easy to read as your meat-and-potatoes, predestinarian theology, proving that salvation, or adoption, or hoping in Christ is actually the work of God.  Seems to nicely line up as a proof-text for Reformation soteriology.  But then....
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
 Did you catch that? "In him you also...."  Wait, who's you? Who's he talking about now?  It appears that only when verse 13 begins that Paul begins referring to the Ephesians.  Well who on earth was he talking about before that??  Why, the apostles themselves, of course.  "...we who were the first to hope in Christ..."

He starts the letter by explaining what has happened in Christ through the apostolic witness.  These are the predestined ones, the ones who were chosen before the foundation of the world to bear the news of God's reconciliation through Christ to the nations. To "unite all things in him..." The Ephesians are only the object of his description after he's done describing the apostles, and then he stops using the words like "predestined" and "chosen before the foundation of the world."

This is called high ecclesiology. That the pre-planned purpose of God was to unite all things, that means all peoples - Jew and Gentile - into one new people of God, in Christ.  This is one of those things that gets screened out when every verse in the Bible gets read as a personal salvation passage, and then discombobulated and placed within the architecture of this or that soteriological framework. Of course predestination has to do with salvation- the salvation of the church, through a message that came to them via the apostles. The apostolic office, the importance of a select few people who alone were given the particular task of being vessels for the Gospel to the world after the Ascension, is one of those nasty little details that protestants like to deal with as little as possible, for fear of being called "catholic" or of endangering sola scriptura.

I'm open to correction on this. But if I'm right, then it's entirely unacceptable to use Ephesians 1 as a defense of Calvinism, the predestination of every little thing that happens (not least salvation), or as a principle on which "grace alone" depends.  It refers to the church, through the apostles; the historical inauguration of a new people of God, according to God's eternal purpose, by those who were "eyewitnesses to his majesty." (2 Peter 1:16)

I might add that the use of the word "predestined" in Acts 4:28 seems to be consistent with this.  I'll let you look that one up :)

A sort  of post-script too. I'm no Greek scholar, but I'm told the word "world" can refer to "age." It's a political word. So to the ancient near easterners, the ascension of Caesar Augustus to the imperial throne was the beginning of a "new world."   If that meaning holds true in verse 4, then the choosing that occurs "before the foundation of the world," probably just means the choosing of the apostles, the twelve, by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. This was indeed before the foundation of God's new age that was inaugurated in Christ's death and resurrection.

I'm going to research this stuff more, probably.  So don't take my word for it...

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Library In A Tree

I recently picked up a copy of The Book Thief. It topped some bestseller lists and looks like a fascinating read: a look at the rise of the Third Reich, narrated by Death himself.  The kind of thing a fantasy-reader can't wait to get his hands on.

I got it from a "community library," which is to say, a wooden box sitting in a tree in a public area.  Some enterprising idealist set a box with a door and a latch on it (unlocked) for all passers-by to access, and hopefully to contribute new books to- to grow it until it needs a bigger box, and perhaps someday, a building.

This characteristic of the area in which I live. A town of righteous idealists, forever coming up with new DIY projects and ways of fostering community's really quite festive and beautiful at times. The community library is located right next to the co-op market, yet another enterprise of ideals built on the notion of the goodwill of its patrons. "Sure, this eggplant costs 4 times as much as it would at the supermarket down the street, but I just LOVE the ethics of what they're trying to do here and karma is watching, don't you know..." and so it is with a thousand businesses, backyard projects, and alternative schools in the neighborhood.

This idea of building a society that is fundamentally based on people's goodwill, and takes action that assumes that goodwill will remain stable, is a noble idea. It might even be a good endpoint to hope for as an eventual conclusion- the conclusion to the story written by, and upon, suffering.  The eschatology of the humanist, the political progressive, the Enlightenment rationalist and champion of Man's responsibility and capability casts Man's future as Good, and so it should...

Were it not for the 20th century, I might have become a part of such a movement. The problem is that, with such an eschatology, it is easy to assume its potency as long as things are going relatively swimmingly.  Take for instance, the protagonists of The Book Thief (which I have not begun to read yet).  I will assume they are the victims and opposers of the Third Reich. These people will see the rise of Terror Incarnate- the mechanistic forward progress of Man The Destroyer of Man.  They will watch their cities burn. They will smell the flesh of their comrades, and family members. They will witness huge populations of people moved to collude with unthinkable violence, in the name of making the world a better place, all with the best and most progressive moral and political ideology available, and at a time that preened before the mirror as the zenith of Enlightenment Man.

I'm afraid the starry-eyed ideal of the Community Library will not survive such events. If we know our history, we know that post-modernism's anti-hero and 'suspicion of system' was wrought by the modern era's empowerment of destroyers and mass murderers.  The human spirit, rooting itself in the unshakable goodness of Human Spirit, will never survive such things. No, the Library will only exist as long as conditions allow people to THINK themselves good, but that notion can't survive the trauma of real suffering. No such ideology could ever come forth among a people who have lived through a concentration camp.

For that, a similarly clothed, yet altogether different Power is needed- the power of Resurrection. The power of Human Spirit flags quickly, but we are told that Christ "breathed out the Holy Spirit" upon his disciples, the deliverers of Good News to a sorry, messy world.  In doing so, he riveted their eyes upon himself- irreversibly Raised from the dead.  And thus said, "Go into all the nations, preaching this Good News of the Kingdom of God..."

And the world was never the same. The human spirit must find its home- in Christ and the Holy Spirit, in order to see, and work for, its future. No one can watch their city burn, and then go about rebuilding it. Unless of course, they've been given a Vision of the city already rebuilt.

I will patronize the Community Library, at least when it's more expedient than the established Public Library, which is less than half a mile down the street.  I hope that it survives, for the time being anyway. But I will also hope that people like this- our rational humanistic idealist friend- will find a firmer ground to plant his seed in. Because anything can withstand a happy-go-lucky community of child-rearing peace-lovers who always say 'hi' to each other in public places.  If only the other kind of people didn't exist...even within us all.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Inside, Outside

A common theme you will hear is that Christians are all about "heart change." "Stop trying to change yourself, you can't do it, you need God to change your heart." The idea is that an internal transformation needs to happen before the external, visible fruit does.

In a spectacular missing-of-the-point, however, this principle generally just serves to draw our attention inwards, toward the thing we cannot change- our hearts.  The idea is to get us to "stop being so legalistic" or some permutation of that criticism, but really what it's doing is to make us moreso- it's demanding we dwell on invisible, ineffable internality of the self which, for all its need to be changed, cannot possibly be seen, defined, or manipulated by the human will at all.

This is just another way we have of DIS-incarnating the faith. The Christian faith is not all about what happens inside me, to the ineffable selfhood of my being, or something like that.  It's all about what happened, historically, outside of me. Both outside of my body, my heart, and my intentions, but also completely outside of my lifetime- Christ crucified and risen from the grave.

When tempted to dwell on personal "faith adjustment" via some new internalism we think we've discovered, we ought to bring to mind that our attentions and machinations can't be directed at faith, or our intentions, or our motives, or anything else inside of us, because they're out of reach of the senses. Rather, it should be on the external thing that has been set before us humans; then WE will be able to set ourselves personally before IT, and like the adage goes, we will become like what we spend our time looking at.

Interested in entomology? Stare at a praying mantis for awhile.  After long enough, your mind will begin to think like the  one who designed it. Praying mantis-shaped pathways will form in your brain.  You're now a step closer to "mastering" insects.

So yes, we ought to do certain things at certain times, in order to allow the five senses to take it all in.  This type of external focus is the opposite of salvation via "self-effort" (as I've heard it called).  To doubt this is to doubt that God is at work in Creation, and assume that he has only to do with some extra-creational, super-spiritual mode of being, to which we are supposed to escape, if we are to be sanctified.

Enough super-spiritualism. Behold what is outside of you, with your five senses.  Behold Christ. Behold his work. Behold the good things in Creation, and the glory that it is all headed for.