The Problem of a Fatherly God but not a Holy One

PT Forsyth’s diagnosis of liberalism speaks to a common evangelical problem,

We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or breathless gratitude.

Any conception of God which exalts His Fatherhood at the cost of His holiness, or to its neglect, unsettles the moral throne of the universe…The fatherly God of recent religious liberalism…is a conception which by itself tends to do less than justice even to God’s love. It tends to take the authority out of the Gospel, the sinew out of preaching, the insight out of faith, the stamina out of character, and discipline out of the home. Such a view of God is not in sufficient moral earnest…It does not pierce and destroy our self-satisfaction. It has not spiritual depth, real and sincere as the piety is of many of its advocates…what I describe is a view of mercy which does justice neither to the majesty of God, nor to the greatness of man…We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or breathless gratitude…We cannot deal to any purpose with the great sins or the great fearless transgressors, the exceeding sinfulness and deep damnation of the race…And the people hear, but do not. They hear but do not fear. They are enchanted, but unchanged. Moral taste takes the place of moral insight. Religious sensibility stands where evangelical faith should be. Education takes the place of conversion, a happy nature of the new nature. Love takes the place of faith, uneasiness of concern, regret of repentance, and criticism of judgment. Sin becomes a thing of short weight…Our salvation becomes a somewhat common thing, and glorious heavens or fiery hells die into the light of drab and drowsy day….It aims at adjusting the grace of God to the natural realm rather than interpreting it by our moral soul and our moral coil…It does not do much in the way of effectively restoring the actual living relation between God and the soul.” [Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 243-245].

“Son Of A..!”: Thoughts on Softening the Bible

Earlier this morn, in 1 Samuel 20:30, I came across King Saul calling his son, Jonathan, a “stupid, son of a bitch!” Not your average morning devotional reading, eh?

This got me thinking: How can this kind of language be in the Bible?

The Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Well, actually it is not. I found it in the notes in my Bible. The translation I have been reading from lately is the NET Bible which has over 60,000 translation notes within it, and they translated Saul’s angry outburst toward his son: “You stupid traitor!” Yet in the notes they make the following admission:

A better English approximation of the sentiments expressed here by the Hebrew phrase would be “You stupid son of a bitch!” However, sensitivity to the various public formats in which the Bible is read aloud has led to a less startling English rendering which focuses on the semantic value of Saul’s utterance (i.e, the behavior of his own son Jonathan, which he viewed as both a personal and a political behavior [= “traitor”]). But this concession should not obscure the fact that Saul is full of bitterness and frustration. That he would address his son Jonathan with such language, not to mention his apparent readiness even to kill his own son over this friendship with David (v. 33), indicates something of the extreme depth of Saul’s jealousy and hatred of David.

So, the translators, of the NET Bible and many others, decided to soften the blow of the Hebrew to make it more sensitive to various listeners even though the Hebrew itself wasn’t nearly as sensitive. Now, I am sure they had good reasons for doing so, but I think it brings up an important point. We love to soften the hard edges of the Bible.

Now in no way am I trying to give everyone who wanted to have an excuse to cuss a biblical reason for doing so. Clearly Saul’s statement was the result of sinful anger. Nevertheless, the Bible is full of tenderness and toughness and translators have been known to take the tough edges off a bit.

Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

For instance, in Philippians, Paul compares all of his religious accolades to “rubbish” or “dung” in comparison to knowing Christ. Yet in all probability he wasn’t just saying “rubbish” with a British accent over tea; instead, as the NET Bible puts it,

The word here translated “dung” was often used in Greek as a vulgar term for fecal matter. As such it would most likely have had a certain shock value for the readers.

Obviously, “dung” isn’t very shocking or vulgar. I could say that to my (almost) three-year-old and not blush. However, I can think of other words I could say that would be more alarming about fecal matter that I would not say in front of my three-year-old. That is what the Holy Spirit inspired apostle is after here.

I am not pretending to be a Bible translator. I am nothing of the sort and don’t even know the Greek or Hebrew alphabet. But I think there is a desire here by translators to temper the Bible a bit that carries over to the pulpit and to the daily lives of Christians.

We want to be able to read our Bible’s without being provoked with foul language. We want to hear sermons with the offensiveness drained out. We want to be good, nice Christian people that say nice Christian things. The problem is the original languages of our God-breathed book sometimes says “son of a bitch” and calls idolaters whores and even our Savior, Jesus, calls the Pharisees names.

Bible-reading, you can call it devotions, is meant to kick us in the gut sometimes and not just massage our nice-and-neat hyper-spiritual sensibilities. It is meant to awaken us to the reality of sin and the beauty of scandalous grace in Jesus.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us.

I think there are a few things to take away from this:

1) The Bible isn’t a cutesy story full of butterflies and rainbows. It is the story of men and women who were created in God’s image being broken by sin and redeemed by the gracious plan of the Triune God. We should expect scandal and uncouthness in the Bible.

2) Preachers aren’t supposed to preach sermons to make you feel good and Christian books aren’t supposed to be written to entertain you or improve you. They should awaken you.

3) Godly communication is tough and tender. The way you communicate differs depending on who you are talking to, what the circumstances are, and what you are talking to them about. For instance, sarcasm can be a biblical means of communication when used in rebuke.

4) We, like translators, have a propensity to soften God’s word to us in the Bible. We naturally want to weaken the offensiveness of the cross, tone down the exclusivity and sufficiency of the work of Jesus, soften our Bible-translations, only experience encouraging encouragement and avoid encouraging rebuke, have devotions and listen to preaching that massages what we already know and doesn’t call us higher, etc.

This isn’t about cussing. This is about our sinful tendency to soften God’s word to us and his call to us. Jesus laughed and played with little children, wept with Lazarus’ family, and he also made a whip to drive out salesman in his house.

Let’s not soften the Bible and lets not repackage holiness into niceness. Holiness is humble but it is not always nice.

Rachel Held Evans, Wilson & Wilson, 50 Shades of Grey, God, & Gender Roles

I don’t normally dive into the fray of blog wars, and the blog title I chose to do it with is more complicated than a law firm’s signage, but I found the recent post of Jared Wilson in which he responded to the sexual perversions of 50 Shades of Grey from a complementarian perspective by quoting Douglas Wilson and the strongly negative response to it by commenters and the later egalitarian response to it by Rachel Held Evans worth my two cents.

All egalitarian and complementarian Christians hate rape, but not all of us affirm a husband’s headship and wife’s submission. That is the real issue here.

This has turned into more than your average complementarian and egalitarian exchange, as not only has Evans charged each of them with misogyny (a hatred of women), but, for some, Doug’s quotation has brought images of rape and sexual violence into the discussion. The main issue surrounds two of Doug’s sentences regarding sexual intercourse:

 A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

I have misgivings about some of these words because of the negative overtones associated with them. “Conquer” particularly stands out to me as where the charge of rape comes from, and the word “colonize” too seems to carry echoes of enslavement. There is a legitimate reason why people cringe at “conquer” (especially women) and “colonize” (especially African Americans), and we shouldn’t be surprised at why they do. When these words are used in reference to sex further nuance is required, and to their credit both Doug and Jared have done so and shown that they are not using those terms in a coercive, violent, or dominating way and the context of Doug’s book and Jared’s post confirms this.

The whole point of Jared’s post is to show how the biblical view of sexuality is antithetical to rape and any sort of masochism in the bedroom (or anywhere else for that matter) like what I am told is depicted in 50 Shades of Grey. In his follow-up post Jared writes,

I thought it a deft point; perhaps what we see in this sort of BDSM fantasy garbage is a perverted overreaction to God’s good design of authority and submission.

That’s how I read the excerpt, and thanks to Douglas Wilson’s clarifications, I am content that I am reading it correctly

Jared and Doug are not misogynists nor are they endorsing rape of any kind. Doug settles this in his post-Evans response here and Jared did so after the commenting onslaught of his initial post here. If you need outside validation for Jared, you can read Jared’s wife’s comment in the comment section of Rachel’s post. You can also read his interview with our mutual friend Justin Holcomb on the horrendous effects of sexual assault and how the gospel brings healing to it. On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of interviewing Jared, following his feed on Facebook, and have read his material off and on for quite some time and he has never endorsed any of the above and in fact has taken his stand against some of those very things.

Feel free to disagree with their complementarianism and feel free to correct Doug for using particularly loaded words, but lets immediately drop the charge of women-hating and associating these men with rape. What Jared and Doug are describing is how sin pollutes God’s design of appropriate male headship and female submission, and how this is corrupted and abused in any act of sexual violence. No biblical complementarian would ever endorse such a heinous thing. All egalitarian and complementarian Christians hate rape, but not all of us affirm a husband’s headship and wife’s submission. That is the real issue here.

While Evans thinks most all this comes down to a complementarian infatuation with power, I think most of this comes down to a disagreement between complementarians and egalitarians about how love itself functions. Egalitarians seem to struggle with how love can be truly and fully loving within a relationship of headship and authority. They believe that headship and authority diminish equality. On the other hand, complementarians believe that loving mutuality and reciprocity can occur within a relationship of headship and submission without diminishing equality or reciprocal love. In fact, complementarians believe that love thrives and relationships are nourished in these very kinds of relationships.

I think we get gender roles wrong because we get the nature of God wrong.

I think we get gender roles wrong because we get the nature of God wrong. God is Triune and because of this love comes first not power. Three of the Gospel Coalition-ers themselves discuss this point in their little talk on the Trinity: listen to the 7ish minute mark to the 11ish minute mark.  The reality of a tri-personal God assumes that love existed between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit throughout all eternity. God didn’t start loving when he made men and women in his image. He loved himself with inter-Trinitarian love from all eternity. But this love does not cancel out headship and submission in the Trinity. For instance the Father loves and is well pleased with the Son (Mt. 3:17), and remains his head (1 Cor. 11:3).  Furthermore, the Son cannot do anything but the will of the Father (Jn. 5:19), seeks the will of the Father above his own (Jn. 5:20, 6:38), and is happy to do so all the way to the cross (Heb. 12:2). The Son gladly submits to the Father who is his head in a mutually reciprocating relationship of divine love of which we cannot plumb its depths.

Similarly, in the relationship of husbands and wives, Paul makes clear that husbands are to love their wives, are the head of their wives, and that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:21-33). He does not say that husbands are to wield power over their wives but to live in a relationship of self-sacrificial, self-giving love with them. These two themes of submission and headship meet in covenantal love. This should not be surprising because God himself in a much greater way shows how the God who is love demonstrates headship and submission in perfect equality. Love simply works this way.

With this in mind, I don’t believe that complementarians are just on a power trip. Biblical complementarity affirms headship but the kind of headship that doesn’t say to husbands “Go exercise your headship”, but that says “Go die for your wives. Go, nourish and care for them.” Godly authority nurtures growth and self-sacrifices for growth it doesn’t stunt it (or rape it.) The Holy Spirit through the Scriptures calls for men to exercise the kind of authority that Jesus took—one that went straight to the cross.

This goes for the bedroom too. Husbands should give themselves up for their wives with sexual intimacy that is nourishing and caring (Eph. 5:25, 29). This kind of self-giving nourishment and care should characterize the husband’s role in the marriage bed itself. In fact, I much prefer those terms (self-giving, nourishment, care) when it comes to marital sexual intercourse than some of the terms used by Doug.

Sex is not about husbands exercising their authority and wives receiving it by submitting to it. Sex was given by God as a gift for both to enjoy, to have pleasure in, and to fulfill the task of multiplying and filling the earth. Evans is correct in pointing out that the apostle Paul taught mutuality and even showed how each spouse has “authority” over the other spouses body (1 Cor. 7:3-4), as well as, accurately showing how in the Song of Songs the Shulamite lady initiates and does not just receive. But Doug or Jared do not disagree with either of these points as their later posts (and other writings) indicate. What they disagree with are her wider conclusions on the matter and the egalitarian categories that are informing them.

This issue here is not about power. It is about love. Love that is reciprocal and mutual and also has headship and submissiveness embedded into the very fabric of the love relationship. This kind of love honors, respects, and is full of joy.

The “Perilous Business” of Shrinking the Gospel

I think there is a certain kind of putting aside secondary matters and doctrines and unifying with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ which brings great glory to God and is needed among fellow Christians, yet I think when the overwhelming ethos of a person or a movement is to shrink the gospel to its bare minimum one risks far too much.

We do not adorn the gospel by becoming ruggedly doctrinaire or pompous in the way we hold to God’s gracious good news, but we do not adorn it either when try to shrink the magnificent ocean of gospel truth down to a puddle on the side of a curb to splash our footsies in.

I understand the heart behind this. There is a desire to not cut off anyone from the faith, avoid pride, walk in love and humility, and honor Jesus’ passion for unity in his prayer in John 17. Obviously, these are wonderful things and Christian virtues that are essential in a polarizing world.

We do not adorn the gospel by becoming ruggedly doctrinaire or pompous in the way we hold to God’s gracious good news, but we do not adorn it either when try to shrink the magnificent ocean of gospel truth down to a puddle on the side of a curb to splash our footsies in.

We must not equivocate pompous with those who have a passion for doctrine or humble with those who tend to minimize it. Pomposity and humility come in all kinds of shapes and sizes among all types of pastors and laypeople, networks and denominations.

J. Gresham Machen in his book What is Faith? offers a warning to those who engage in the  “perilous business” of shrinking Christian doctrine down to its bare minimums:

For our part we have not much sympathy with the present widespread desire of finding some greatest common denominator which shall unite men of different Christian bodies; for such a greatest common denominator is often found to be very small indeed. Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with. We, however, regard it as a perilous business; we prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. [(Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991, first published 1925), 159-160)]

What Interpreting the Bible & Communicating with Your Wife Have in Common

The authors of the new book Invitation to Biblical Interpretation demonstrate how interpreting the Bible and listening to your spouse relate to each other:

In our quest to understand the Bible, author, text, and reader each have an important part to play. Every document has an author, and the resulting text is shaped by his or her intention. It is this authorial intention the interpreter must aim to recover. The text is not ‘just there,’ left to be interpreted any way a given reader chooses. When my wife talks to me, I dare not give her words my own preferred meaning. The rules of proper communication demand that I seek to understand the meaning she intended to convey.

It follows that the text of Scripture, likewise, is not neutral, that is, malleable to a great variety of interpretations that lay equal claim to represent valid readings of a given passage…It is an authorially shaped and designed product that requires careful and respectful interpretation.

…There is no excuse for interpretive arrogance that elevates the reader above text and author. The ‘golden rule’ of interpretation requires that we extend the same courtesy to any text or author that we would want others to extend to our statements and writings. This calls for respect not only for the intentions of the human authors of Scripture but ultimately for God who chose to reveal himself through the Bible by his Holy Spirit. (p. 57-58)

You don’t get to make the Bible say what you want it to say anymore than you get to twist your spouse’s words in a way that they do not intend. Well, actually, you can do both of those things, but it will not go well for you and you will not honor God or your spouse in the process. If you love your wife, you will strive (though imperfectly) to understand what she really says and really means in her communication with you, and if you love God, you will strive (though imperfectly) to understand what he has said in his communication with you through his Word.

Oftentimes Christians interpret the Bible according to a “what it means to me” principle, but imagine if we did this in normal communication when listening to the one’s we love.  In this case it really doesn’t matter what it means to you–it matters what it means to them. If I consistently give what my wife communicates to me a meaning that she does not intend and that only I desire, I am only serving myself and hinder the growth of the relationship. (I do this far too often!)

Now, if you have been married for any time at all, figuring out what your spouse means takes time and even tools to develop, but if you value the relationship you will take the time to learn what your spouse intends to communicate. It is the same way with God. It takes time in his Word and proper tools to understand his Word (and, of course, the person and work of the Holy Spirit whom ultimately gives spiritual understanding!), but if you value who he is and what he says you will seek to do this to the best of your ability.

The Problem with Reducing Doctrines to the Question: “Is it a Salvation Issue?”

In many conversations that I have had regarding skewed theology, unsound doctrine, and bad interpretations of Scripture and the like, I run into the common refrain “Ya, but its not a salvation issue” or “Well, even if he/she does believe that they won’t go to hell for it.” This has always bothered me because the assumption is the only thing that matters when it comes to belief is only believing what keeps you out of hell. Now, obviously, that matters–big time, but it is not the only thing that matters. Its kind of like saying to your spouse after an disagreement: “Well, it’s not a divorce issue. Your not going to divorce me for it, so its not that big of a deal.” Or its like the classic teenage boy at youth group trying to go as far as he can with his girlfriend without doing-da-deed and actually fornicating. Its just a plain bad way of thinking and bad way to live your life in relationship with other people, which, of course, includes your relationship with Jesus.

Fred Sanders, over at his blog, has some helpful comments on the problem with this way of thinking about Christian doctrine:

Is this a salvation issue?” is often the final court of appeal for evangelicals. First of all, let me point out that even if it were not a salvation issue, it could still be important. Only an evangelical culture in which doctrine and truth are not considered relevant to Christian life could the question “Is this a salvation issue” function as a diagnostic check for every doctrinal discussion, with the implicit presupposition being that we should think very little about anything that does not directly impinge on whether you go to heaven when you die. Some things may not be salvation issues but may still be fundamentally wrong and therefore to be avoided. A Christian can be saved and go to heaven with a great number of wrong ideas in his head. Many believers have had shocking experiences in which we discover some amazing and important theological truth that has somehow escaped us in years of the Christian life. Many evangelical Christians believe, for example, that Jesus got rid of his human body when he ascended to the Father, undid the incarnation, and is no longer a human. That is a false belief, and reading Hebrews would correct it rapidly. Is it a salvation issue? No, but if a whole church began belligerently preaching the non-humanity of the ascended Christ, it would be grounds for warning them sternly that they were deviating.

The goal of Christian believer’s is not to believe as little as they can about God and his Word just to make it into heaven, but to “grow in knowledge and grace” and cultivate “sound doctrine.” Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, says that the time will come when people will “not put up with sound doctrine” (4:3). The poisonous weed of a negative attitude toward–a not putting up with–sound doctrine grows from the soil of an attitude that treats only the most important Christian doctrines as important at all and chucks the rest out as simply filler and relatively unimportant. When you start pulling on the string of important doctrines the most important ones will eventually disintegrate. (*Tip of the hat to Sinclair Ferguson for that last analogy*).