(What follows is an excerpt from a book-length manuscript that I am composing, tentatively titled, Understanding the Biblical Message. I welcome any feedback, pro or con, either as a comment at this blog or as a private email, to email@example.com, as it will aid in the composition process.)
The primary difference between the monotheistic religions of the world—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and the religions of the East is that the monotheistic religions claim that "God" is not identified with Being itself but with a personal Being—the Creator—who has revealed himself to the human creation through human language. (The mystical lines of thought within monotheistic traditions that have tended to equate God with impersonal Being testify to the influence of Eastern religious and Greek philosophical thought on monotheism throughout religious history.)
To call God "personal" and to refer to God in terms of masculine personal pronouns (he, him, his, himself) is to speak metaphorically in that the term "person" and any corresponding pronouns, whether masculine or feminine, come out of a human frame of reference, that is, from the world of human experience. "God," in the sense of Creator, transcends both personhood and maleness, which are empirically—that is, observably—confined to human persons. (Even the word "God" is a metaphor in that it was borrowed from the religious language of the nations surrounding ancient Israel whose "gods" preceded the revelation of Israel’s God [whose name was Yahweh] to Abraham, the original patriarch of Israel. So, "God" was the available metaphor with which to identify the existence of Yahweh.)
Metaphorically speaking, then, the biblical God is like a person in that God communicates with words. In biblical terms, God is also like a father, in that he provides for and disciplines human beings; like a king, in that he rules human beings; like a judge, in that he justifies and punishes human beings. These biblical God-metaphors reveal God-in-relation-to-humanity (albeit humanity as it existed in the ancient world) in order to make the biblical God understandable to human beings. This accords with the purpose of the biblical writers: to persuade readers to believe the word of God and thereby to enter a covenant relationship with God that provides hope.
On the other hand, the biblical writers make no attempt to reveal God-in-and-of-Godself. In the first place, no words exist in any language that could do so. When it comes to God, biblically speaking, metaphor is as close to reality as truth can get. (The same is true, by the way, of other invisible realities; witness scientific metaphors like "particles" and "waves" to define microscopic realities of physics.) In the second place, if such God-words did exist, they would not serve the purpose of creating a relationship between God and human beings. Instead, they would amount to rhetorical fodder for philosophical and theological debate. (Witness the convoluted and contentious history of the ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, which originated in the fourth-and-fifth-century attempts of Greek-philosophers-cum-Christian-theologians to describe God-in-and-of-Godself as three-Persons-in-one-Being.)
Chiefly, the biblical God is like a person in that God promises. At the same time,unlike people in general, God invariably and unfailingly keeps his promises (covenant faithfulness being the biblical definition of righteousness). While God is invariably defined and described by the biblical writers in metaphorical terms that establish a likeness between God and humanity—which God created "in his own image" (Gen. 1:27)—the unlikeness of God to his human creation is expressed by the biblical word "holy."
Just as the biblical God is, primarily, the promise-maker-and-keeper, the biblical definition of faith consists, in its simplest terms, of believing God’s word of promise and behaving accordingly.
The promises of God, according to the biblical writers, were entrusted to various persons in the form of visions and dreams, through the agency of angelic messengers ("angel" originally having been a transliteration of the Greek, angelos, of which the English translation is "messenger"; whether the word refers to a human messenger or a non-human messenger [typically rendered "angel"] is usually clear from its immediate biblical context). Those biblical persons who received the revelations of promise from God through the angelic mediators were called "prophets," whose prophetic calling consisted of speaking God’s word of promise to God’s people and calling their hearers to believe the promise and to behave accordingly.
So, throughout the biblical story, the word of God was spoken and heard, and only later, in the form of oral traditions, committed to writing in the form of scripture.
By comparison, the tradition of ecclesiastical Christianity defines "the word of God" as the Bible, equating the word with a written artifact. This, however, is to misconceive and misconstrue the biblical testimony. By this definition, any sentence selected at random from the Bible can be called "the word of God." This amounts, in effect, to equating the Christian view of the Bible with the Islamic view of the Koran.
The Islamic belief is that God revealed the Koran to Mohammed by a kind of dictation, every word proceeding, as it were, from the mouth of Allah himself and, therefore, constituting the very words of Allah.
The biblical writers' own view of both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures is vastly different. Rather than being itself the word of God, the Bible can best be described as the prophetic history of the progressive revelation of the word of God.
To call the Bible prophetic is to affirm that it is God-breathed, that is, inspired by God (the English words inspired and spirit coming originally from the Latin, spiritus, which in English means breath or wind, which is also the literal English translation of the Hebrew, ruach, and Greek, pneuma, both of which are typically rendered "spirit," and "Spirit," instead of "breath" or "wind" in English versions of the Bible). To call it prophetic is, then, to identify the Bible directly with God’s messengers (the prophets) and only then, indirectly, with God’s message. Which is to say that the message can only be heard via the agency of the messengers, but the messengers are themselves distinct from the message (Jesus being the only exception).
Likewise, the Bible is not the message but the messenger of God, more precisely, a history of God’s messengers, who progressively—little by little—revealed the message until it reached its completion, according to the New Testament (NT) writers, in the form of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God.
To call the biblical revelation progressive is to affirm that "the word of God" is the message that now forms the whole, of which each specific biblical-historical revelation of God formed an incremental part, each part building on each preceding part until the parts finally formed the message in its fullness. As one of the NT writers says, "Long ago, at many times [times meaning, literally, portions, or parts] and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . ." (Heb. 1:1-2a). The Old Testament (OT) prophetic revelations, then, were increments, partially and progressively building towards the whole, the fullness of God’s revelation of "these last days." With the coming of Jesus, the incremental progression of partial revelations formed the whole, and "the word of God" became the NT gospel (Greek, euangelion, literally, good news).
The Bible itself, then, was written about "the word of God" (more specifically, about its progressive revelation), which always initially took the form of a spoken message. By setting the evolving message in its evolving historical context, and identifying the revelations ofthe message with the interventions of God in the history of Israel (for the purpose of progressively fulfilling his promise), the biblical writers verify the authority of the message as "the word of God."
In the NT synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ message is called "the good news of the kingdom of God" (Luke 4:43) and in the letters of Paul, it is typically called "the gospel of Christ," meaning the gospel proclaimed both by and about Jesus, whose crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation brought Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom to completion. (Critical to understanding the biblical message is understanding the eschatological relationship between the already-ness of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the not-yet-ness of the kingdom of God.) The historical Jesus became, then, by means of his crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation, not only the preeminent messenger of the Bible but also the embodiment of the biblical message itself. (An egregious error of evangelical Christianity has been to focus on Jesus’ death as its message to the exclusion of Jesus as the messenger of the kingdom of God, along with its having reduced Jesus’ resurrection to such an afterthought that it is rarely heard of except in Easter-Sunday sermons.)
That the Bible tells the story of the progressive revelation of the word of God corresponds to the fact that it is a story of promise and fulfillment. The event that serves to launch the story is God’s three-fold promise to Abraham (the stories of the creation and the flood and the tower, in Genesis 1-11, serving as an extended introduction to the Abrahamic promise). God promises togive Abraham a son, through whom God promises to make of Abraham a great nation, through which God promises to bless all nations (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18). The revelation of the word was necessarily progressive because each incremental fulfillment served to move the promise toward its ultimate fulfillment: the international blessing proclaimed in the NT gospel.
The fulfillments of the promise of the son, in the physical birth of Isaac, and the promise of thegreat nation, in the national birth of Israel (in the promised land) is the story told (and developed in detail) by the OT writers. The fulfillment of the promise of international blessing is the story taken up by the NT writers, beginning with the physical-spiritual birth of Jesus (the promised Messiah, Hebrew for Anointed One, which in Greek is Christos); continuing with his proclamation of the kingdom of God, crucifixion by the Romans, resurrection from the dead, and exaltation to the right hand of God; and ending with the proclamation of his gospel by his apostles throughout the Roman empire (including letters to infant Christian communities about the implications and applications of the message they had heard and believed).
All of which is to say that God's three-fold Abrahamic promise and its progressive fulfillment (especially with reference to the Mosaic law, the Davidic Kingdom and the Messianic faith) is the necessary framework for understanding, and the simplest and clearest way to understand, the biblical message.
The biblical message (the gospel) is, then,God's word of promise: the promise which God has been progressively fulfilling to Abraham through Israel and its Anointed One, whose proclamation, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation confirm the eventual fulfillment of the promise of international blessing when he comes to raise the dead, judge the world, and bring the kingdom. That promise of international blessing is, according to the NT writers, the hope of everlasting life in the kingdom of God.
At its inception, the Christian faith consisted only of a message—the gospel—believed to have originated with the historical Jesus, who was believed, after his resurrection from the dead, to have sent his apostles (Greek, apostoloi, literally, sent ones) to proclaim the message to all nations. Not until years later, in the latter half of the first century, did the NT writers use oral traditions, into which the spoken message had been embedded, to compose narratives about Jesus’ proclamation, crucifixion and resurrection (in the NT Gospels), and about the apostolic proclamation of his message to the nations (in Acts of the Apostles). And only in the latter half of the first century did they send letters to infant Christian communities of the first century in order to explain the implications and applications of the message for both the present and the future (in the NT epistles and Revelation).
The earliest Christian community possessed no scriptures of its own to study as individuals (most first-century Gentile Christians being illiterate anyway) or to order its collective activities (even the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint, being unavailable to most). Jewish Christians, who were already conversant with the Hebrew scriptures, had come to believe that Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus) had come to fulfill "the Law and the Prophets" and, therefore, they were gradually (and to varying degrees, some more reluctantly than others) learning to reinterpret the Hebrew scriptures with reference to the gospel (as Paul’s letters demonstrate that he had). As years passed, when a local Christian community received an apostolic document (to hear publicly read from house to house), members understood that these documents had been written about the message that they had already heard and believed. The purpose of the reading of these apostolic documents (which did not become an official canon until the fourth century) was, then, to broaden their understanding of the message so that they might be more and more deeply persuaded to believe the promise of Jesus’ God and Father and to behave accordingly.
Granted, as contemporary NT scholars and historians have amply demonstrated, the international Christian community of the first and, especially, second and third centuries was far more diverse in its beliefs regarding the Christian message than was previously recognized. The twentieth-century discovery of "Gnostic Gospels" in the Nag Hamadi library in Egypt has led to the conclusion that no broad Christian consensus existed in the second and third centuries on the meaning of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Even the first-century letters of Paul show the extent to which he was engaged in debate with alternative interpretations of Jesus' message, and give evidence of some degree of conflict between Paul and his fellow apostles about the implications of the gospel, especially for relations between Jews, both Christian and otherwise, and Gentile Christians.
Nevertheless, regarding "the gospel I preached to you," Paul claimed to have "delivered to you as of first importance what I also received" from those who had preceded him as apostles: "Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed" (1 Cor. 15:1, 3, 11). Which is to say that, Gnostic and other rhetorical departures notwithstanding, Paul believed that an apostolic consensus regarding the Christian message existed in the first century, a consensus that has been preserved by the NT writers for subsequent generations.
The most (or, perhaps, the least) obvious difference between the earliest Christian community and the Christian community of today, as far as the biblical message is concerned, is that while the first Christians started with the message (i.e., the apostolic gospel) as their reference point for understanding both the Hebrew scriptures (i.e., "the Old Testament") and the apostolic writings (i.e., "The New Testament"), the contemporary Christian must start with the Bible—and whatever ecclesiastical tradition has shaped her or his preconceived ideas about it—and work back to the message. That is, if she or he is to have any prospect of hearing the message anew. And ecclesiastical Christianity offers no consensus regarding a message that unifies the testimony of its Bible.
The closest ecclesiastical Christianity has come to formulating a central message is probably the so-called "gospel" of evangelical Christianity. The evangelical message in short: God the Son diedon the cross to pay God the Father to forgive sinners so that God the Holy Spirit can enter their lives and they can go to heaven when they die. As such, the evangelical gospel is a synthesis of three doctrinal traditions, each of which is distinct from the apostolic tradition preserved by the NT writers: First, the fourth-and-fifth-century Nicean-Chalcedonian doctrine of the Trinity; second, the medieval Anselmiandoctrine of the atonement; and, third, the pre-Christian, Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
What the evangelical gospel both subtracts from and adds to the biblical testimony make that message amount to, in the words of the apostle Paul, "another Jesus" and "a different spirit" and "a different gospel" (2 Cor. 11:4) from the message Paul himself proclaimed to his hearers and explained to his readers, and which his letters have preserved for future generations.
The challenge that faces contemporary Christian truth-seekers, then, is to discover the biblical message anew in their own Bibles. A couple of significant obstacles stand in the way.
First, the ecclesiastical equation of the word of God with the Bible has resulted (not coincidentally) in an abject dependence of churchgoers on clergy for access to "the word of God." The Bible is a voluminous text, translated from ancient languages, reflecting alien customs and cultures, composed of varying kinds of literature. As such, the Bible seems virtually incomprehensible to most "laypersons." Thus the presumed need for ecclesiastical experts.
The ministerial function of the clergy of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity is—largely via the preaching of Sunday sermons—to tell the laity what the Bible means. That is, to tell church-goers what to believe and how to behave. When a "minister" ascends the pulpit, he doesn’t typically acknowledge that his sermon represents the interpretation of the ecclesiastical tradition in which he was trained. Instead, he (especially in fundamentalist and evangelical denominations, which typically exclude women from their pulpits; hence my use of "he") "preaches the word of God" (as if he were a God-breathed messenger of the word). And for most churchgoers, this once-a-week hearing of "the word of God" is the extent of their exposure to the Bible. And for those churchgoers who are willing to allow clergy to take responsibility for their faith, this seems sufficient.
For Christians wishing, in virtually any ecclesiastical context, to assume responsibility for their own faith, however, understanding the biblical message so as to believe and behave accordingly often proves to be a steeply uphill climb.
Second, even for Christian truth-seekers, the Bible itself presents formidable obstacles to understanding, perhaps foremost of which are the available English translations. English-language versions of the Bible are virtually all the products of translation committees comprised of churchmen-and-women. Which is to say that these versions are produced by and for "the Church," the manifold ecclesiastical institution which, centuries ago, commandeered the worship of God—now called "going to church"—by constructing temples, each housing a religious system administered by officials who conduct rituals that presume to mediate the knowledge of God’s word and the experience of God’s Spirit. (None of which is to necessarily impugn the sincerity or integrity of ecclesiastical scholars and clergy; it is the effect of rather than their motivation for their work that I address.)
In that translation of one language into another necessitates a self-evident element of interpretation, ecclesiastical versions of the Bible reflect ecclesiastical presuppositions about the meanings of biblical words and ideas. In other words, the original languages of the Bible are rendered in English in such a way as to reinforce rather than to call into question ecclesiastical doctrines and practices. While this is not at all to suggest that to understand the Bible one must be a Hebrew and/or Greek scholar (neither of which am I), it is nevertheless often helpful to draw on scholarly resources (Greek-English interlinear versions of the New Testament and theological dictionaries, for examples) for aid in interpreting biblical texts. The good news is that biblical scholarship, elements of which exhibit an increasing independence from the ecclesiastical tradition, can now bring students of the Bible closer to the historical roots of the Christian faith than at any time since the post-apostolic period.
The bottom line is that acquiring an understanding of the biblical message is the whole point of reading the Bible. And that an understanding of the biblical message about God's Abrahamic promise and its Messianic fulfillment is itself persuasive to the extent of motivating one (with persuasive power) to believe the promise of God and to behave accordingly.
The term prolepsis signifies the rhetorical/literary device of referring to a future event as if it had already occurred and, therefore, exists as a present condition; as such, it expresses anticipation and assurance regarding that future event. (As when one is invited to a party and says, “I’m there,” or when a soon-to-be executed prisoner is referred to as a “dead man walking.”) While scholars and serious students of the Bible While scholars and serious students of the Bibles recognize prolepsis as a biblical figure of speech, I am persuaded that too few realize how frequently it appears in the biblical writings and how central it is to the biblical message. A consideration of the biblical definition of "faith" reveals that Christian faith is a proleptic concept: "Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). (The objective renderings "reality" and "evidence" are better translations of the Greek terms hypostasis and elenchos, respectively, than are the typical subjective renderings of English NT versions, "assurance" and "conviction," according to the original-language resources I have consulted.) The proleptic feature of biblical faith is that the biblical message itself ("the word of Christ," which is the object and content of faith, according to Rom. 10:17) is thepresent “reality” of the future events that the message (and, therefore, that Christian faith) anticipates. Those future events are the "things hoped for" and, therefore (because they have not yet occurred), the "things not seen." So, to speak believingly is to speak about those future events--specifically, the parousia (i.e., the future coming) of the risen Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, and the coming of God’s kingdom--as if they had already occurred and, therefore, are a present “reality.” A reality, then, not of fact but of faith in that though they have not yet occurred (are not yet a matter of observable fact), they are predestined to occur by the purpose of God, who has revealed his purpose in his promise to Abraham (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18; Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:8). (The biblical, as opposed to the Calvinistic, meaning of predestination is that what God has promised is, for that very reason,predestined to occur.) Which is also to say that these "things" are a matter of God’s foreknowledge in that God knows that what he has purposed and promised will inevitably occur. (Biblical foreknowledge, like biblical predestination, is simply the prophetic revelation of God's promised future.) What God has promised, then, is a present reality of faith (visible only to the eyes of faith) and will be a future reality of fact (visible to all inhabitants of earth). To speak faithfully (i.e., believingly), then, is always to speak proleptically, that is, to speak of God's promised future (revealed in the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom of God) as if it had already occurred and is, therefore, a present "reality.” This “reality” is, once again, the biblical message itself, which Paul calls “the word of faith” (Rom. 10:8) because it constitutes what is believed: God’s promise of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God, already fulfilled in the experience of Jesus himself. God’s promise (“the word of faith”) is the "reality” of what God has promised because God is faithful (which is the biblical definition of the righteousness of God). The proleptic feature of biblical faith is also revealed in Paul's reference to the God "whom [Abraham] believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17). In this case, “the dead” to whom God “gives life” is not singular but plural (Greek, nekrous, lit., “the dead ones”) and, therefore, God’s activity of giving-life-to-the-dead refers to the future resurrection of the dead to everlasting life in the kingdom of God.Which is to say that God now “gives life to the dead” as a matter of promise, to be fulfilled and, therefore, experienced by “the dead” when the risen Jesus (whose resurrection anticipates and assures the resurrection of the dead) comesto raise the dead, judge the world, and bring God’s kingdom.
God’s gift of salvation, then, is given in the form of promise: God’s grace is the promise of life in the age to come, assured by the forgiveness of sins which has been accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross, offered to all and given to believers in the biblical word of promise. Jesus’ resurrection is itself, then, the past event which allows the future resurrection of the dead to be spoken of proleptically, that is, spoken of as if it had already occurred and is, therefore, a present reality (see Eph. 2:4-7). Likewise, Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the kingdom allows the kingdom of God to be spoken of proleptically, as if present, as indeed it is a present reality of faith. In conjunction with “giv[ing] life to the dead,” God "calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17), which is the very definition of prolepsis: To speak of future events as having already occurred and, therefore, as if they were a present reality is to call “things that are not [yet] as though they were.” (I am quoting from the NIV because, in this case, its rendering is closer to the original language--which even more literally says, “calls things not being as being”--than are the renderings of typically more literal versions, such as the NASB, which says, “and calls into being that which does not exist.”) That is, the “things that are not” (Rom. 4:17) are the same as the “things hoped for” and, therefore, “not seen” (Heb. 11:1). And because “faith” is the “reality” and “evidence” of those promised “things,” to believe is to call those “things” as God calls them: To speak the word of God is to call “the not [yet] being as being,” that is, to speak of God’s promised future as a present reality. Through faith in the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom (i.e., “the word”), God's promised future is present--real and evident--in the mind and heart and life of each member of the community of Christian faith. The “reality” and “evidence” (Heb. 11:1) of God’s promised future--the kingdom of God--is the power of “faith” that transforms Christian lives from the inside out: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Paul’s reference to God’s promise to Abraham accords with this interpretation:"As it is written: 'I have made you a father of many nations'," (Rom. 4:17a). God “made [Abraham] a father of many nations” by means of the promise to give Abraham a son, through whom God would make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would bless all nations (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18). God called Abraham, hundreds of years before these words became a reality of fact, to believe the promise (the fulfillment of which Abraham would not see in his lifetime) and, therefore, to consider himself "a father of many nations." That Abraham did so, through faith in God’s promise, was his “righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6). While not a reality of fact at the time it was made, God's promise constituted a reality offaith for Abraham. This is another way of saying that faith in God’s promise made hope a life-transforming “reality” for Abraham: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations . . .” (Rom. 4:18). The essence of Abrahamic (and, therefore, Christian) faith is that “he was fully persuaded that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21), and so, “it was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:22). As Paul says, “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom. 4:23-24), in that our righteousness, like Abraham’s, comes through having believed--and continuing to believe--God’s word of promise (which the NT writers call "the gospel," that is, "the good news of the kingdom of God," Luke 4:43). This is the faith, the confession of which refers proleptically to the promised “things hoped for” and “not seen” as if they have already occurred and, therefore, are apresent reality. And this faith makes God's promise--the Christian hope of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God--as it was for Abraham, alife-transforming “reality” (i.e., power) in the community of Christian faith, both individually and collectively. Christians can speak of the kingdom of God as present and of themselves as having entered therein because God’s promise makes this hope a reality of faith. When the risen Jesus comes with the kingdom, God’s promise will be fulfilled, and that reality of faith--evident now only to the eyes of faith, which alone "see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3)--will become a reality of fact, evident to, because observable by, all the inhabitants of the earth. The reason the proleptic feature of Christian faith has been so little understood and, therefore, so little applied to biblical interpretation by ecclesiastical Christianity is that ever since the Hellenization of (that is, the imposition of Neo-Platonic philosophy on) the Christian tradition by thepost-apostolic “Church Fathers” and their successors, realities of faith have been perceived as existing not proleptically but literally, in the present. These ecclesiastical realities of faith are “not seen” not because they are “hoped for” (Heb. 11:1) and, thus, have not yet arrived, but because they are believed to exist in an invisible, eternal world that transcends this visible, temporal world (a worldview, unbeknownst to most Christians, having come from Plato rather than from Moses and/or Jesus). Included among these supposedly invisible, eternal realities of faith are the immortal souls that indwell the mortal bodies of the living, as well as the immortal, disembodied souls of thedead, who have supposedly ascended to everlasting, ineffable bliss in Heaven ordescended into unending, conscious torment in Hell (a word and a concept appearing nowhere in the original language of the Bible). Which is to say that, inecclesiastical terms, the non-observable realities of faith of the invisible, eternal world are supposed to exist at the same time as the realities of fact that are observable in the visible, temporal world. By comparison, the biblical realities of faith are the “things hoped for” and, therefore, “not seen” (Heb. 11:1). That is, they are the eschatological (from Greek, eschatos, lit., last) things of the coming age of righteousness and life: the parousia of the risen Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, and the kingdom of God. These “things” are promised by God in the biblical message of Jesus and the coming of God's kingdom. As realities of faith, they are, at the present time,proleptic “things.” Nevertheless, the fact that they have yet to occur makes them no less real--that is, powerful--in thelives ofChristians. They are as real as God’s word of promise, the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God, which Paul calls “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . .” (Rom. 1:16).
They are as real as God’s “Spirit” (Greek, pneuma, literally, breath, the biblical metaphor that represents God's presence and power in the form of the gospel), through which God has revealed these “things” (1 Cor. 2:9-13) and through which God empowers the lives of those in whose minds and hearts dwell the Christian hope of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God: “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).
This proleptic view of the kingdom of God accords with the biblical texts that refer to the presence of the kingdom (e.g., Matt. 13:38, 41; Col. 1:13) as well as with those that refer to the futurity of the kingdom (e.g., Matt. 13:43; 1 Cor. 6:9; 15:24).
The Kingdom of God is primarily eschatological (not ecclesiastical, as it was for St. Augustine, who began the ecclesiastical tradition of equating "the Church" with the kingdom of God on earth) in that the kingdom of God will be a coming-age reality of fact, even as it now constitutes the Christian hope of salvation. Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is, for that very reason, a present-age reality of faith, existing in the form of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom, as it is believed, empowering the minds and hearts and lives of Christians, who consider themselves, through faith, to be citizens of the kingdom of God even as they anticipate its coming at the end of the age with the parousia of the risen Jesus.
After the passing of the apostolic generation, Paul intended (according to the evidence of his NT letters) to have left behind local Christian communities among the nations led by “elders” (i.e., older, mature believers) who had grown into an understanding and persuasion regarding the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God that would empower them to lead by example and persuasion (see also 1 Pet. 5:1-5 for Peter's apostolic endorsement of Paul's intention). The presence of mature Christian examples and persuaders would enable the body of Christ to build itself up in love (see Eph. 4:15-16), rather than be dependent on authority figures to supervise Christian existence.
The only biblical concept of “apostolic succession” is found in Paul’s words to Timothy: “. . . what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men [Greek, anthropois, or humans, male or female] who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). What Timothy had heard from Paul and was to “entrust to faithful men” was not doctrines about Church government or about the Holy Spirit but “the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13), which he also called “the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:14), referring to the apostolic gospel about Jesus and the kingdom of God.
(By “the apostolic gospel about Jesus and the kingdom of God,” I mean what Paul calls "gospel," which he claims was revealed to him by the risen Jesus [see Gal. 1:11-12]. The apostolic gospel consisted of Jesus’ “good news of the kingdom of God” [Luke 4:43], as it is typically referred to in the NT Gospels, into the framework of which Paul incorporated his explanation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The grievous error of ecclesiastical Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has been to excise the eschatological kingdom of God of Jesus’ gospel from Paul’s gospel of the risen “Jesus Christ and him crucified” [1 Cor. 2:2] and, in so doing, inventing a Trinitarian “gospel” that has nothing to say about the kingdom of God because, unlike Paul, it explains Jesus' death and resurrection without reference to the kingdom of God. In the Trinitarian gospel, "God the Son" dies to appease God the Father--that is, to pay God the Father to forgive sinners--so that "God the Spirit" can distribute forgiveness to penitent--that is, church-going, clergy-supporting--sinners. This is a "gospel," I submit, that can be found nowhere in either the NT Gospels or the letters of Paul or any other NT writer. The apostolic gospel is, according to the NT writers, "the word of God," a phrase which refers, throughout the Bible, not to the Bible itself but to the biblical message, which the Bible was written to explain to its readers and to preserve for future generations.)
The international Christian community and every local Christian community thereof was intended by the apostles to continue under the same authority after as before the apostles died: the authority of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Unlike ecclesiastical Christianity, the NT writers assert the centrality of the apostolic gospel to not only every individual Christian but also every local Christian community as well as the international Christian community as a whole. And the NT writers assert the power of the apostolic gospel to extend the authority of Christ to and exercise the authority of Christ within every generation of believers.
The body of Christ is a community of faith in that it is the faith of Jesus and the apostles (i.e., the good news of Jesus and the kingdom) that creates, sustains, and expands it. Christians are members of the body not because they have “placed membership” with some religious organization, or even because they have been immersed in water or performed some other initiatory rite, but because they believe the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom. Their faith makes them members and leads them (“led by the Spirit”) to edify one another in the faith at a variety of times and places in assemblies of all shapes and sizes. (And whoever believes the apostolic gospel, and to whatever extent he or she believes, that one is a member of the international Christian community, whether “churched” or “un-churched” or “ex-churched.”)
The Greek word, ekklesia, means “assembly,” and was a nonreligious word in the first century. In Acts, ekklesia is used with reference to a riotous mob (Acts 19:32, 39) and a town meeting (Act 19:41). By rendering ekklesia with the religious term “church” (as do all ecclesiastical versions of the New Testament), ecclesiastical Christianity has invented a religious organization that it can control with its clergy. The NT ekklesia was a community of faith in that it was assembled by the faith of its members in the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God, experienced by its members in the form not of a formal, hierarchical organization but of informal, egalitarian association (specifically in the form of household gatherings).
A formal, hierarchical organization requires an official, authoritarian approach to “leadership,” which is precisely what Jesus admonished his disciples against: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43). It’s a grave error to read “lord it over” as meaning to exercise authority only in a heavy-handed way. Jesus’ words equate the phrases “lord it over” with “exercise authority over,” whether heavy-handedly or even-handedly. Any kind of official, positional authority is out of place in associations characterized by freedom and equality, which require, instead, the interpersonal dynamic of mutual submission, each treating the other as one wishes to be treated oneself.
Does this mean that there is no authority? No. It means that the authority of Jesus, which he passed on to his chosen apostolic messengers, is invested in the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom. Elders (in NT terms, not a title but a description) are those whose maturity in the faith is demonstrated by their grasp of the apostolic gospel, evidenced by their words and their deeds. In other words, they lead not by position but by persuasion. In Heb. 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them,” the word translated “obey” is a form of peitho, which means to persuade, as in, “Be persuaded by your leaders and submit to them.” No sense of positional authority is given by this or other NT references to Christian leadership.
This does not mean that leaders were or are superfluous to Christian fellowship. It simply means that leaders, as servants of the message and those who hear it, serve the message by persuading others to believe it and behave accordingly, as they strive to do themselves. Which is precisely the paradigm for leadership that Jesus constructed for his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Jesus’ “commandment” was to follow his example of love, the love of God revealed in the apostolic gospel: “. . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This, then, is the authority of love rather than of law, an authority exercised by means of persuasion rather than of coercion. The same authority that the risen Jesus gave (through the "Spirit") to the apostolic generation, he has given (through the same "Spirit") to the international Christian community of all generations: the authority of the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God (which the NT writers take great pains to enable their readers to understand with their minds so that their readers can apply the gospel to their individual and collective lives).
This means that the “laity” in “the pew” have as much access to the power and authority of Jesus’ good news of the kingdom as the "clergy" in "the pulpit," but their position in the “pew” may deceive them into thinking that the occupant of the pulpit has been given some kind of positional authority over them by the Lord (reinforced by the symbolism of the pulpit exalted in space over the pew), in which case they may never come to experience the persuasive power of the good news for themselves.
The “Church” (of whatever variety) is necessarily dependent on its clergy because it was designed to be so by the post-apostolic inventors of ecclesiastical Christianity. Christians find themselves psychologically locked into this system of religious authority primarily because they have been distracted from seeking a clear understanding of the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom, and its all-sufficiency for Christian existence in the present age, by the religious superstitions of ecclesiastical Christianity, along with its religious sideshows, which are open to the public every Sunday, all designed (however unwittingly by those who conduct them) to keep Christians dependent on “the Church” and its clergy. The crowning achievement of the Church councils of the third and fourth centuries was to replace the Jesus of the apostolic gospel with the Trinitarian Christ of “the Church” as the mediator between God and humanity. Thereafter, instead of worshipping God in spirit and truth (i.e., through faith in the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom) every day, Christians have been indoctrinated into “going to church” to worship God on Sundays (and maybe at mid-week “services”) through the rituals of their “Church.”
This is not to say that the NT writers prohibit organizations for the purpose of Christian ministry and fellowship. It may be that interpersonal relationships, household gatherings, congregational organizations, annual conferences, and other forms of association are each and all valid ways for Christians to build up the body of Christ. At the same time, any form of positional authority (as opposed to the persuasive authority of the biblical message) would seem to be inappropriate and damaging to the NT spirit of Jesus.
Church history reveals (for all to read) that, relatively early in the post-apostolic period, the Christian community was led to submit to a “bishop” in each city (later called the “monarchical bishop"), each one exalted over his fellow elders, who became his “clergy,” to enforce his rule over each local Christian community. Thereafter, the Christian community began to be transformed from an egalitarian community of faith into a hierarchical organization of law, eventually viewing itself as the kingdom of God on earth, and as having the mandate of God to impose its will (which it called “the will of God”) on all nations. And it did so with a vengeance, utilizing the full panoply of violent technology made available by the kingdoms of the world. With the Enlightenment and the subsequent rise of democratic government, the Church (thank God) lost its power to rule with violence. It ruled thereafter by perpetuating its religious superstitions, like “hell” (a word and a concept found nowhere in the original language of the Bible), and its psychological satisfactions for the felt need to be released from the God-given responsibility of self-government.
The NT escape route out of the misconceived and misdirected religious authority of ecclesiastical Christianity is the redirection of one’s believing towards a persuasive understanding of the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Only as the authority of the biblical message is gradually, intelligently internalized can its truth about the hope of the kingdom and the love of God become a renewing, transforming power in Christian lives.
The general consensus among the educated has long been that reason is at odds with faith in the same way that science is at odds with religion. The extent to which this is true depends on how faith and reason are each defined.
Some definitions of reason and faith indeed make them mutually exclusive. If reason is defined as belief only in what can be proven scientifically, then reason is clearly irreconcilable with faith. By the same token, if faith is defined as belief in that for which there is no evidence, then faith has nothing in common with reason.
To define reason as belief only in what can be scientifically proven, however, is to reduce reason to rationalism (more specifically, a form of rationalism called positivism). In everyday life, reasonable persons believe claims that cannot be scientifically proven. Which is to say that reasonable people have opinions. Reasonable people can, of course, support their opinions with evidence (which typically involves the interpretation of physical and/or historical facts in support of an opinion); this is what makes their opinions reasonable. However, if reason demanded belief in only what could be scientifically proven, then reason would exclude any beliefs other than scientific facts.
The difference between facts and opinions is not that the former are true while the latter are false. Rather, the difference between facts and opinions is that facts have been sufficiently verified by evidence so as to have become matters of consensus (meaning that virtually all agree) whereas opinions, as a general rule, cannot be verified, no matter how much evidence is presented to support them. Nevertheless, an opinion, while not verifiable, must be supported by evidence to be persuasive to reasonable people. While public discourse is frequently burdened by uninformed opinions, reasonable people distinguish themselves by forming and expressinginformed opinions, that is, opinions that are informed and, as such, supported by evidence.
On the other side of the question, to describe faith as belief in that for which there is no evidence is to reduce faith to superstition. To the extent that it consists of superstition, of course, faith is at odds with reason.
The mystical character of so much of religious faith is largely responsible for the assumed opposition of faith and reason. Mysticism is belief that God is experienced intuitively, apart from the mediation of reason. Religious faith, so defined, presumes to be a kind of "spiritual" intuition, a sort of sixth sense—independent of either the five physical senses or the mind—through which one can gain access to and knowledge of the transcendent realm of the spirit, the invisible, eternal world beyond the visible, temporal world that is perceptible to the physical senses. The claimant to ESP (extrasensory perception, or the sixth sense) is believed to be especially attuned to the invisible world and, therefore, presumed to serve as a mediator, a catalyst who can awaken and cultivate the sixth-sensibility of those who are willing to believe.
In that no physical or historical evidence can be supplied for the existence of any such transcendent world, faith as the experience of this invisible, eternal world must exclude reason, because reason must demand some form of physical and/or historical evidence to support its conclusions. Naturally, then, the notion that faith and reason are unalterably opposed seems to follow.
Nevertheless, once the biblical definition of faith is distinguished from the common definition—as belief without regard to evidence—then the apparent dichotomy between faith and reason disappears.
Biblically speaking, faith is a matter not of intuition but of persuasion. Rather than a mystical activity, biblical faith is a rhetorical activity (rhetoric denoting the persuasive use of language). Which is to say that biblical faith consists of believing the words of a message, which the Bible callsthe word of God. (Which is not to invalidate intuition as a form of knowledge, albeit uncertain; it is just to distinguish "spiritual" intuition from biblical faith in God.)
The biblical word of God was originally revealed by God to and through his prophetic messengers. Prophets were the biblical figures into whom God "breathed" the word through visions and dreams, calling them to speak the word to the public. (God’s "breath" is the biblical metaphor, appearing in the original languages of the Bible, from which evolved the English words "Spirit" and "inspired." Among the biblical prophets into and through whom God breathed the word are the NT Jesus and his apostles.) While it might be inferred that the visions and dreams of the prophets must have been in some sense mystical, or intuitive, biblical faith is never identified with the revelatory experiences of the prophets themselves. Instead, biblical faith is the experience ofbelieving the word that the prophets spoke, which has been preserved for every generation to hear anew by the biblical writers.
Moreover, the biblical word of God takes the form of promise. From the beginning of its OT revelation in God’s promise to Abraham to the end of its NT revelation in the fulfillment of God’s Abrahamic promise through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the word emerges from the Bible as a story of promise and fulfillment.
God promises Abraham to give him a son, through whom God promises to make of Abraham a great nation, through which God promises to bless all nations (see Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18). After the revelation of the promise in Genesis, the Bible tells the story of its progressive fulfillment. The promise of the son is fulfilled in Isaac; the promise of the great nation is fulfilled in Israel (and its "promised land"); and the promise of the international blessing is fulfilled in Jesus, whose death replaces the national ("old") covenant between God and Israel with an international ("new") covenant between God and both Jews and Gentiles, and whose resurrection gives the international community of faith the hope of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God (coming, according to the biblical message, to renew and transform life on earth).
The persuasive content of biblical faith as promise and fulfillment distinguishes it from all intuitive forms of religious faith. Which is to say that nothing in the biblical message—also called "the word of faith" (Rom. 10:8)—is self-evident to any form of "spiritual" intuition. And because faith in the biblical message depends on persuasion rather than intuition, the tension between faith (at least of the biblical variety) and reason disappears.
How so? Insofar as the biblical testimony about the progressive fulfillment of God’s Abrahamic promise—especially in the forms of the birth of Isaac and the exodus of Israel and, chiefly, the resurrection of Jesus—serves as evidence to support the claims of the biblical message.
In regard to Jesus’ resurrection, hearers of the biblical message are not called to wait for a "religious experience," in which they "see" Jesus in a vision or "hear" his voice in a dream or otherwise feel themselves overpowered by his spiritual presence. The testimony of post-apostolic Christian mystics and charismatics notwithstanding, to anticipate such an experience is to confuse God’s revelations to the biblical messengers themselves—those into andthrough whom God breathed the word—with the experience of believing their message and so, being filled with God’sbreath. To believe the biblical message is to experience the persuasive power of the biblical testimony about Jesus’ death and resurrection as the means of entrance into the coming kingdom of God (the persuasive power of the message being, biblically speaking, the power of "the Spirit").
Hearers of the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom of God are not called to believe without evidence. Instead, they are directed, first, to the evidence of the progressive fulfillment of God’s Abrahamic promise in the OT history of Israel, which led to the coming of Israel’s Anointed One (Hebrew, Messiah; Greek, Christos), Jesus, to proclaim the kingdom of God, to be crucified for sins, and to be resurrected from the dead. And, second, hearers of the biblical message are directed to the evidence of the eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ apostles about his resurrection. From a band of disappointed and frightened former disciples of their crucified master (and, in the case of Paul, a former persecutor of Christians), they were transformed by their witness of the risen Jesus into proclaimers of the message of Jesus and the kingdom of God (called "gospel," that is, good news) to all nations.
The Bible tells the story of the progressive fulfillment of God’s Abrahamic promise and, therefore, the story of the progressive revelation of the message about how the promise reached its fulfillment in Jesus. And how that fulfillment offers hope of resurrection to everlasting life in the coming kingdom of God to all nations. (Biblically speaking, then, the word of God is not the Bible itself but the biblical message: the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God; the Bible itself is not the message but the messenger, the inspired story-teller.) As such, the Bible appeals to human reason, calling the hearers of its message to a faith predicated on understanding.
In fact, the biblical meaning of "hear" is not merely to physically perceive the sound of the message but to mentally perceive its meaning; that is, to "hear" the message is to understand it, just as to believe the message is to be persuaded by a biblical understanding of it. As Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4:9; see also Matt. 13:23 for the importance Jesus placed on understanding).
The biblical emphasis on faith as understanding and persuasion throws all claims not only to mystical experiences but also to mystical doctrines into doubt as to their biblical authority. Ecclesiastical doctrines such as the Trinity and the immortality of the soul are—unlike clear biblical claims about the exodus of Israel and the resurrection of Jesus—unsupportable by any physical or historical evidence.
The doctrines of the Trinity and the immortality of the soul are also demonstrably post-apostolic, originating in the neo-Platonization of the Christian tradition by the Church councils of the third and fourth centuries, a fact that any volume of Church history will attest. Significantly, Christians can believe all that is explicitly identified by the NT writers as the apostolic gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God without even paying lip service to mythical belief in a "God-in-three-Persons" or an immortal soul (both of which are, at best, inferred from selected NT texts).
In short, biblical faith cannot exist in the human heart apart from the exercise of reason. As God says through one of the prophets, "Come now, let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18).
The biblical concept of predestination has, in the hands of Calvinistic theology, been twisted into a superstition that has distorted the image of the biblical God into the picture of a capricious and pernicious deity who programmed each of his human creatures, before the creation of the world, to either believe and obey him or disbelieve and disobey him, and to experience the respective consequences of his choice forever. Accordingly, while people may seem to make their own choices regarding whether or not to believe in the biblical God and behave accordingly, they are actually unconsciously acting out a script that was written for them before they were ever born.
While many Christians reject Calvinistic theology in this extreme form, most seem to have been nonetheless influenced by it to view God as, more or less, a cosmic control freak. Which is to say that God does not smile on the desire of humans to be free to choose and to experience the natural consequences of their free choices. Or, perhaps more precisely, God allows humans to delude themselves into thinking they are free to make choices, only to make clear to them at the end of the line that human freedom is a demonically inspired fiction.
The chief error of Calvinistic theology is its concept of the sovereignty of God. In this view, God is sovereign in that whatever occurs does so because God has decided that it should occur. Whatever happens is,ipso facto, the will of God. (As in, “There’s a reason for everything that happens.”) It could have happened in no other way because if it did, God would not be
In truth, however, events and circumstances may transpire in countless ways without lessening or altering the sovereignty of God in the least.
Calvinistic theology allows no room for the possibility that the freedom of God’s human
creatures is central to God’s sovereign will. That the wise exercise of their freedom may, indeed, be the sense in which human beings reflect the divine image in which they were created. It was, after all, the apostle Paul (whose letters include a number of references to predestination) who wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). If these words are to be taken seriously, they must at least call into question the notion that God’s sovereignty is synonymous with absolute control over all that God has created.
Understanding the biblical idea of the sovereignty of God, and therefore ofpredestination, requires a somewhat more nuanced understanding of the will of God than fundamentalism and evangelicalism generally allow. The Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) writers shared a prophetic perspective on human events. Which is to say that the will of God was, for them, indistinguishable from the word of God, through which had been revealed to them God’s purpose for creation. From this revelatory perspective, God is indeed sovereign over all that occurs in the world he created, and this means that all that occurs is, in some sense, the will of God. Having said this, however, the will of God must be understood in terms of two broad
categories, which may be termed God’spurposive will and God’s permissive will.
God’s Purposive WillFrom a biblical perspective, God’spurposive will consists of what God originally purposed for his creation, and thereafter, revealed in what God promised to his people. The Bible is the prophetic history of the revelation of the word of God, which is synonymous with God's
God’s promise, which began the progressive revelation of God’s purpose for creation, was first made to Abraham: that God would give Abraham a son, through whom God would make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would bless all nations. This promise was
progressively fulfilled through the birth of the son God promised to Abraham, Isaac; through Isaac (and his son Jacob, whose name God changed to “Israel”) descended the twelve tribes of Israel which, under Moses’ leadership, became the nation of Israel, which became the great nation promised to Abraham under King David; one of David’s descendents—the comingAnointed One (Hebrew, Meshiach, or “Messiah”; Greek, Christos, or “Christ”: biblically, the human being whom Godanointed, or chose, to rule God’s kingdom)—God promised to place on the throne of Israel in order to fulfill God’s ultimate purpose of blessing all the nations of the earth.
This is the biblical story about the fulfillment of God’s original purpose for creation through the progressive fulfillment of his promise. In that the purpose of God for creation is the content of the word of God, the progressive fulfillment of God’s promise is also the progressive revelation of God’s word. (Biblically speaking, then, the word of God is not the Bible itself but the biblical message, the word of promise and fulfillment that God revealed to and through his biblical
messengers, whose message is woven into the biblical story. Accordingly, the Bible is the messenger, and “the word of God” is itsmessage; for the NT writers, “the word of God” is synonymous with “the gospel” [1 Pet. 1:23-25], the mesage proclaimed first by Jesus and subsequently to all nations by Jesus’ apostles.)
In that the Bible claims to be the story of the revelation of God’s purpose for all nations of the earth through the fulfillment of God’s promises, if this claim is true, the Bible is the source of information regarding God’s purposive will for his people.
Calvinistic theology notwithstanding, God’s people are not, in biblical terms, a fixed set of
individuals who, throughout human history, constitute his people through no choice of their own. Instead, the people of God are a community of faith, consisting of whoever throughout human history has heard God’s word of promise, revealing God’s purpose for humanity, and have chosen to believe it.
In so doing, believers have chosen to identify themselves with God’s purpose for his creation. And by so doing, they have chosen to become members of the community of faith, which God foreknewand, therefore, predestined for salvation. That is to say, God did not know beforehand which specific individuals would become members of the community of faith. Instead, God “foreknew” and, therefore, “predestined” that this community would be “called” by the hearing of the gospel, and “justified” through believing the gospel, and “glorified” as the eventual
outcome of their ongoing faith in the gospel (Rom. 8:29-30). Whoever, then, hears and believes (and continues believing) the gospel has freely chosen to identify herself or himself with the predestined community of faith.
This is analogous to the scheduling of a public mode of transportation—a bus, for example—to arrive at a destination. If all goes according to schedule, the bus—and therefore all who travel therein—will arrive at its destination. Whether or not any specific individual arrives at that destination with the bus depends on his or her having purchased a ticket, boarded, and stayed on board until the bus reaches its destination. Individuals are free to choose to travel or not, but the bus (barring unforeseen developments) will arrive at its destination—is predestined to arrive—regardless of whether they arrive with it or not. The difference between public
transportation and God’s purpose, of course, is that God’s faithfulness makes the fulfillment of his purpose inevitable (which is the biblical meaning of predestination) whereas buses are subject to the contingencies and exigencies of time and chance. The point is that a collective body—a category of people known as believers—ispredestined, not the specific individuals who choose to believe and, therefore, enter that collective body.
According to the prophetic understanding of God’s sovereignty, whatever God purposes—God’s purpose being synonymous with God’s sovereign will—God foreknows (i.e., knows beforehand) and, therefore, predestines (orforeordains, i.e., ordains beforehand) to occur. God’s purpose is subsequently worked out in human history in terms of what God has promised to his people. Biblical foreknowledge and predestinationare simply words of encouragement to God’s people signifying the assurance that God will be faithful to his promise. That the fulfillment of God’s promise is a foregone conclusion, as good as done, only a matter of time. And, therefore, that those who believe God’s promise are assured of enjoying its fulfillment.
God’s faithfulness to his promise is, in fact, the biblical definition of God’s righteousness: “You are the LORD [Hebrew,YHWH, the name of Israel’s God, rendered “LORD,” with all capitals, in English versions of the Bible out of respect for Jewish reticence about speaking, or writing, the name of God], the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the
covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite.And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous”
(Neh. 9:7-8; see also Rom. 3:1-5; 1 John 1:9; and a large number of other OT and NT texts that equate God’s righteousness with God’s faithfulness).
Once again, that God has predestined this community of faith to live in his presence (that is, in the kingdom of God) forever does not mean that God has predestinedthe specific individuals who would be members of the community of faith. It is the spiritual community as a whole, that category of people known as believers in “the word”—not the specific individuals who choose, through faith in “the word,” to enter the spiritual community—that isforeknown and
predestined to enter the everlasting kingdom of God at the end of the age.
Biblical predestination, then, rather than discouraging believers with uncertainty as to whether their shortcomings or tribulations may mean that God has notpredestined them for salvation, encourages believers that, regardless of their shortcomings or the trials they face, their
membership in the spiritual community of faith means that their entrance into the kingdom of God at the end of the age is assured.
The compatibility of biblical predestinationand human freedom is expressed in Jesus’ saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). All who hear the word of God—defined in NT terms as “the gospel” proclaimed by the historical Jesus and, after his death and
resurrection, by his apostles—“are called” into the predestined community of faith. Nevertheless, “few are chosen” in that few choose to believe the gospel (to put on “the wedding garment” of Matt. 22:11), and so, to join the predestined—which is to say, the “chosen”—community. One chooses, then, to be one of the “chosen.” In that God has “chosen”—that is, purposed and promised, foreknown and foreordained—the community of faith to enjoy life in the kingdom of God forever, God has, in effect, already “chosen” all who, of their own volition, choose to believe: collectively, their chosen-ness was purposed and promised, foreknown and foreordained from the beginning; individually, they choose to be part of the chosen community when they hear and believe the NT gospel.
God did this choosing of those who choose to believe when, in the beginning, he chose to send his AnointedOne into the world he would create and eventually redeem. In choosing to send his Anointed, God chose all who would believe “the word” of and about his Anointed: “He was
foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:20-21). Accordingly, God “chose us [i.e., believers] in him [i.e., God’s Anointed] before the foundation of the world . . . In love, he predestined us [i.e., believers] for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . .” (Eph. 1:4-5). By choosing to send his Anointed to be the source and object of faith, in effect, God chose all who would, as a matter of their own choosing, believe in his Anointed.
All of which is to say that the proclamation, crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation, andparousia (Greek for presence, coming: coming-to-be-present at the end of the age) of God’s Anointed was God’s purpose from the beginning of his creation, and therefore, all who believe the NT
proclamation of and about Jesus are, by doing so, predestined by God to be raised from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God.
And so, biblical predestination turns out to be entirely consistent with the freedom of God’s human creatures to choose their eschatological (from Greek, eschatos: last-in-time) destiny. It is this eschatological destiny itself that is foreknown andpredestined for all who choose it by hearing and believing the NT gospel.
Calvinistic Proof Texts But what about those NT texts that seem to assert the opposite, that God’s will is inimical and unalterably opposed to human freedom? That God wills and does what he will do entirely apart from human choice?
Among the most notorious of these texts is Romans 9:13: “As it is written, ‘Joseph I loved, but Esau I hated’” (quoted from Malachi 1:2-3).
In this text, the Calvinistic interpretation notwithstanding, God is not expressing a negative attitude he had toward Esau before Esau was born, nor was God expressing a predetermination to damn Esau’s soul or to save Jacob's. Rather, the writer used a Hebrew idiom to describe God's choosing of Jacob rather than Esau to be in the line of promise from Abraham, the Patriarch, to Jesus, the Messiah ("Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated").
According to the same Hebrew idiom, Jesus warned his hearers: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Rather than that Jesus’ disciples must feel a literal contempt for money, Jesus’ words mean that they must choose to “serve God” rather than money.
Likewise, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Rather than that his disciples must feel animosity toward their families—which would contradict all that Jesus instructed his disciples about their relationships with others—Jesus employed the same Hebrew idiom to say that his disciples must choose to follow him even though their families might be offended or disappointed by their doing so.
An understanding of the biblical writers’ metaphorical use of love and hatred makes clear, then, that God did not, before either were born, literally hate and, therefore, condemn Esau while loving and, therefore, saving Jacob. Their standing before God was not Paul’s subject and, therefore, was not at issue. Paul’s subject was, in this case, God’s sovereign right to choose according to his own purpose. That God chose Jacob over Esau not to be saved or damned but to be in the Abrahamic-Messianic line of promise that would eventually fulfill God's purpose, before either had had a chance to do good or evil, is evidence for Paul’s argument (made throughout Romans 9) that God does not choose based on works of law.
Paul’s point is not that God’s choices are arbitrary. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau may seem arbitrary—after all, God had to choose someone to be in the physical line from Abraham to Jesus. Nevertheless, Paul’s argument is that God’s choice of those who believe the Messianic gospel for a righteousness of faith over those who rely on their obedience to the Mosaic law for a righteousness of works is based on the very purpose for which God chose Jacob over Esau: “. . . in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call . . .” (Rom. 9:11). When it comes to salvation and destruction, God has always exercised his sovereign will not capriciously but consistently with his righteousness, to choose believers in his Abrahamic promise, whether Jews or Gentiles. Whether Esau, or Jacob for that matter, died in the hope of salvation depended on their faith in God’s promise to their grandfather Abraham, not on which of them God chose to be in the physical line of promise from Abraham to Jesus.Therefore, the case of Jacob and Esau is not an example of God's havingpredestined anyone to be saved or lost.
Equally subject to Calvinistic distortion has been Romans 9:17-18:“For the Scripture says to Pharoah, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (from Exodus 9:16).
God predestined Pharaoh's role in the exodus of Israel from Egypt according to his original purpose and Abrahamic promise to make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would ultimately bless all nations (Gen. 12:1-3; 18:18). God fulfilled his purpose and promise through Pharaoh by delivering the Israelites from Egypt and, thereby, making of Abraham a great nation through which God's "name might be proclaimed in all the earth."
Further, God hardened Pharaoh's heart not by means of a direct action but by means of "the word of God" that Moses spoke to Pharaoh, commanding Pharaoh to free his Israelite slaves. Pharaoh’s pride in his own sovereignty would not allow him to submit to the sovereignty of God expressed in "the word" spoken by Moses. That the ruler of the Egyptian empire would resist a Hebrew’s claim that the Hebrew “god” commanded that Pharaoh release a sizable portion of the slave labor that facilitated the maintenance of his kingdom is hardly surprising.
Most importantly, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart for the purpose of damning his soul but, instead, “that my name be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom. 9:17). Which is to say, so that all nations might hear about the Hebrew God and eventually be prepared for the coming of his Anointedto fulfill God’s Abrahamic promise to bless all nations.
Again, therefore, God's hardening of Pharaoh was for the purpose of fulfilling his original
purpose and Abrahamic promise, which would reach its ultimate fulfillment in the proclamation, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Neither of Paul's examples (Jacob and Esau nor Pharaoh) are intended to illustrate that God predestinesall that occurs. Nor that God
predestines individuals to be saved or lost. Individuals are free to choose whether or not to believe and are responsible for their own choices.
The difficulty Paul faced with his Jewish readers (his Roman letter having been written to a mixed community of believing and unbelieving Jews along with Gentile believers who had joined themselves to the Jewish community of Rome) was to persuade them that their election by God was not for the purpose of their own salvation and the destruction of the rest of the world, as (not Moses and the prophets but) their religious tradition had taught them. Rather, God’s election of Israel was for the purpose of their becoming “a light for the nations” (Isa. 49:6; see also Isa. 60:1-3), that is, for the purpose of the salvation of the rest of the world, to fulfill God’s Abrahamic promise to bless all nations. And that as they, through faith in the gospel, accepted the purpose of their election, they would enjoy the salvation that God intended for all nations, including Israel.
And so, God "has mercy on whomever he wills," which is to say, God wills to have mercy on those who claim a righteousness of faith rather than of works, and "he hardens whomever he wills," which is to say that God wills to harden those who reject his word of promise, whether he be an Egyptian Pharaoh or a Pharisaic Jew who claims a righteousness of works.
Because of the failure to distinguish between God’s election of specific individuals, like Jacob and Pharaoh, to be in the physical line of promise from Abraham to Jesus in order to fulfill his purpose, on one hand, and God’s election of whomever believes the gospel to be saved as the fulfillment of his purpose, on the other, Calvinism perverts and distorts the biblical knowledge of God.
Calvinism represents the failure to understand that God's sovereign will is that human beings be free to choose to believe "the word" or not, free to love their Creator or not, free to accept or reject the hope of salvation. All that occurs is God's will in the sense that God's sovereign will bothpurposes and permits. God's purposive willwas expressed in his promise to give Abraham a son, through whom God would make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would bless all nations. Godpredestined this to occur and guaranteed its ultimate fulfillment in his Anointedbecause of his love for his human creation.
The significance of the biblical writings is that they preserve the progressive revelation of God’s purposive will.
God’s Permissive Will All else that has occurred, does occur and will occur in human history is a matter of God's
permissive will. Which is to say that it is God’s will to permit human beings to exercise their freedom to reject his purpose and disbelieve his promise if they so choose.
World events or personal circumstances reveal not God’s purposive will but God’spermissive will: “Again I saw that under the sun . . . time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11).
This does not mean that God is not sovereign but that God’s sovereign will for the present age is to permit events to run their natural course, leaving human circumstances to “time and chance.” As Jesus said of his heavenly Father, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Good fortune or misfortune are as likely to fall on believers as on unbelievers (to which the OT story of Job certainly attests). On the dark side of the coin, God permits both natural disasters and human atrocities.
Accordingly, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), who is the lord of “all the kingdoms of the world” (Matt. 4:8), “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Which is to say that Godpermits Satan to be the administrator of the world of the present age—which makes Satan the face of God’s wrath—until day of
judgment, which Jesus called “the end of the age” (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49). God counters the evil one by means of the revelation of his purposive will for all nations in "the word," in the hope of persuading human beings away from the evils of both hatred and indifference and toward the goodness of love and servanthood. (This often seems insufficient in the face of injustice, but the only alternative God has to persuasion by means of "the word" is coercion by means of direct intervention, which could only be effected by God at the cost of human freedom.)
That the Creator of all things would permitevil, and all of its attendant human suffering, to occur is the problem oftheodicy, which posits an either-or proposition: Either God is good but not all-powerful, or God is all-powerful but not good; God cannot be both good and all-powerful because in that case God could and would not allow evil to have its way in the world.
The reply of Calvinism is that God is both good and all-powerful but that human depravity makes it impossible for fallen humanity to accept that God has the right to do as he will here and damn whomever he will hereafter. The creature has no right to question the will of the Creator. Instead, the creature must accept that the will of God is a mystery that will only be understood in the hereafter (if one happens, through no choice of her or his own, to be one of the chosen few who makes it to the hereafter).
The biblical answer is that God permits evil because his sovereign will includes his desire for the exercise of human freedom, even when the consequences of human freedom are destructive. The freedom to do good must also include the freedom to do evil, just as the freedom to love
must also include the freedom to hate. Enough intelligent creatures joining together, however unwittingly, for evil and hateful purposes creates tidal waves of human suffering that engulf the earth.
Nevertheless, how else can God's human creatures grow into maturity except through the exercise of freedom?
Finally, God’s permissive will is the framework within which God’s purposive will—revealed in “the gospel" proclaimed by Jesus and his apostles—moves toward the day of judgment (“the end of the age”) and the kingdom of God (“the age to come”). That what God purposes for creation is sure to prevail over all that God permits in the meantime is the meaning of biblical