But could a God like that be good? Intentional instablity. (Part 5)
So many of our denominational differences boil down to a split between opposites, both of which the Bible seems to support in at least some way.
1: Do people choose to believe in God, or does God cause people to believe in him?
2: Does God want everyone to be saved, or has he planned some souls for destruction?
3: Did Jesus die for the whole world, or did he die only for the elect?
4. Could the second coming of Jesus happen at any moment, or will the Kingdom of God slowly reform the condition of the planet?
5. Did God give women gifts in teaching, discernment, and leadership, or does he want them to take an invisible, submissive role in the church?
6. Is salvation by grace alone, or is a level of obedience a necessary component of true salvation?
7. Was the book of Genesis meant to function like a lab report, describing precise details of an empirical process, or is its genre poetic, built upon a Hebrew framework that works more like poetry found in other places in the Bible?
8. Is salvation permanent, or can it be lost?
Most of us can look at this list and sort various opinions into a camp with the Southern Baptists, the Church of Christ, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, or the Episcopalians. Many of us also know where we stand on these issues.
Once we find ourselves planted in a definite theological camp, it can be hard to find hearty, irenic conversation about any of these matters. Answers are promptly given. Denominational authorities are promptly cited. We are handed syllogisms, proofs, creeds, systematics—but mostly, we are handed a posture of complete certainty. Our denominations have absorbed all the tension. They have answered the questions for us.
In some ways, this sort of certainty is necessary. This is a crazy time for the church, an era when fundamental orthodoxy is being challenged in many congregations.
Because my husband and I have been thinking about getting back into ministry, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading statements of beliefs on church websites. I’m not doing this because I want to argue, I just know that if certain key things don’t line up, I’m probably not going to be a good fit for a congregation.
For example, I look for church leadership that respects the Scriptures highly; I could never trust a leadership team that valued its own discernment more than the Word of God.
Holding this single standard eliminates two types of churches for me immediately. First, this conviction prevents me from joining certain progressive congregations that use the Bible “more like guidelines” (Pirates of the Carribbean reference. Don’t miss it. Ha.). No, the Bible isn’t a collection of Aesop’s fables; it’s living and active, intended to have an authoritative role in our lives. So those churches are out. Secondly, however, my respect for the Scriptures eliminates churches that insist the KJV is more inspired than all other translations. Why? Because the Bible doesn’t support this teaching in any way. A KJV-only stance is based on eisegesis, not exegesis. I love the KJV dearly, but my love for that translation can't excuse an extra-Biblical claim. Because I trust the Bible so much, I'm prevented from joining both ultra progressive and extreme, fundamentalist churches.
Within the American religious machine, such issues function like a sorting hat. They help us find places to jump in and start participating in community, and they warn us about congregations where we would have enormous battles to fight before we could even begin to harmonize. As much as I love the idea of ecumenicalism, I don’t think it will be a real possibility until the Kingdom is fully implemented.
That said, the church has also taken the work of definition too far at times. In an attempt to solve all Biblical mysteries, we have sometimes tried to force clarity, and we have erred in our conclusions as a result.
Here’s an example from my own life.
Twenty years ago, I discovered Reformed theology for the first time. I was immediately smitten. I didn’t just read a couple of Piper books and start listening to R.C. Sproul like most people did at the time--I went full out. I got my husband to bring me thick, old, technical Reformed books from the seminary library. I hacked through systematic theology and writings of the Puritans. I studied pretty hard for about five years. I was thrilled to find a theological system that could handle the scientific, rational part of my mind.
The puzzle was solved. The mysteries were mastered. I was giddy.
My husband and I have very different personalities, and those differences became obvious during this period of our marriage. After my frenzied studies, I would run to him with what I found that day. (He was in seminary at the time.) As I poured all my excitement and certainty upon him, he would listen, but he wouldn’t immediately join in my ecstasies. As he held back, I grew angrier and angrier.
When I insisted on hearing what he thought, he said, “Bec, we should leave the things Scripture leaves in tension in tension. You don’t have to solve everything. God leaves certain gaps for a reason.”
This answer infuriated me. I had spent so many hours dialoguing with people who exuded total theological confidence. I thought that confidence was the same thing as faith.
I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I finally (secretly) decided that I was just a lot more intelligent and brave than my husband. I thought he was too scared to walk into the battle and hack these problems out. (I conveniently ignored the fact that B was working 40 hours a week while completing a 122-hour ThM requiring competency in Greek and Hebrew. It would take me twice that long to learn those languages with full focus. I wasn't smarter or braver--I was just angry that he wasn’t jumping on board with me.)
Dismissing his hesitations, I persisted on my own. After all, the Bible was a only a book, and I’d never met a book I couldn’t conquer. I could do this.
Then, one day something hit me. Suddenly, I saw how a single element of Reformed theology could not be reconciled with the Bible.
Panic ran through me. Desperate to make the problem go away, I read books, I dug through the writings of people who had tried to make this puzzle piece fit. I even emailed John Piper’s church and wrestled with one of their lead pastors—a man who was wise, kind, and patient, but who couldn’t give me an answer that fit my exegetical standards.
This one element of theology wasn’t derived from Scripture; it was derived from human logic.
I was devastated.
If you aren’t an analytical person, this disappointment might not make sense to you. But at twenty-nine, I placed complete trust in the power of the human mind to crack the truths of God. I was still, essentially, a Greek humanist. (So many intellectual Christians are.)
Because I was wholly encased in a Christianity that fought every internal and cultural battle with Greek tools, I didn’t know anything different. I didn’t understand how Plato and Aristotle had impacted Augustine or Aquinas, or why that influence mattered. The only God I could imagine was a divine Aristotle-type figure--a systematic, mathematical Great Divider who dispersed truth like a chemistry textbook. If this was God, my sole quest was to find the system that held all truth.
This is why finding one hole in the best system I'd ever found broke my heart.
As time has passed, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of what my husband was saying all those years ago. If God is really all-powerful, he could have given us a Bible with no mysteries in it. But he didn’t do that. He left tensions. He left paradoxes.
I still read (and love) a lot of Reformed theology. But these days I don’t study Reformed theology because I want to master all-things-God. These days I read it to worship a God who is caught, in part, by certain Reformed teachers. There’s a massive (eternity-shattering) difference between the two approaches.
Some of you—especially the readers who are like me—are chomping at the bit at this point in my essay. You want me to tackle specific mysteries from the Scriptures and tell you where I've landed. But as I've prayed about it, I'm not sure that's the best move to make in this post. Maybe we can hit some of those mysteries later, one at a time, but right now, the teacher-part of my personality wants to pause the lesson and let a concept soak overnight.
Why? Because if we move forward too quickly, we will lose the bigger and more important point--a point that supersedes all those singular questions. That point is this:
What God makes clear in the Scriptures, receive with clarity.
What God leaves ambiguous in the Scriptures, receive with humble trust.
If we distort either element of that combination, we’re going to find ourselves in trouble.
What does humble trust in the presence of a mystery look like? Well, it's not blind belief, if that's what you're thinking.
One of the most important quotes of my faith journey was written by Flannery O’Connor in Wise Blood. You’re going to think it’s a misquote when you first read it, but it’s not. Read this slowly, and really think about it as you go.
Of a particular character, she writes: “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin” [emphasis mine].
This is the total opposite of how most of us imagine religion works. We normally think of sin as the thing that drives us from God—and it does, of course. But there’s also another posture that keeps us from God—a posture that runs through every descendant of Eve—a posture so pervasive that we hardly recognize it as sin at all. This posture is the belief that our own powers of mind or will can protect us from needing a living and uncontrollable God.
This was the posture of the Pharisees, who were so desperate to create a systematized religion that they missed the Messiah. This is the posture of modern religious legalists, desperate to follow a checklist of “dos and don’t” so that they can "earn" heaven.
It can also be the posture of the theological intellectual, the ravenous student who (at a subconscious level) is trying to find every rule of Christianity so that she doesn’t have to engage with a free and living God.
I would have never admitted that this is what I was doing when I was twenty-nine. I would have told you that I wanted to be accurate. But in retrospect, I wanted a machine I could wield in battle—a dependable weapon that I could carry into relationships, into culture, in the depths of my own fears to destroy any threat.
I wasn't content with what God made clear. I wanted every mystery and paradox wrapped up, in part, because I was scared that God wasn’t real, that he wasn’t good, that he didn’t love me. I was desperate for a theological Constitution that I could carry into a divine court, demanding my rights and proving my justification.
As the Lord has lovingly broken this mistrust in me (he’s still breaking it BTW), I’ve come to feel a little differently about the intentional instabilities he’s left in the Bible. Why? Because if I stand in humble trust, they can drive me back to Him—not just to a recognition of His character-- but to the living person of God.
I haven’t stopped working over the mysteries, and God hasn’t stopped meeting me in them. In fact, some dilemmas that I considered irreconcilable twenty years ago no longer confuse me. But I’m starting to see that he’s not just a dissertation review board—he’s a Father who stands in mastery over dimensions of truth that exist beyond the limitations of Greek rationalism.
So, when I look at the concept of hell and start wrestling with verses that seem to teach two different angles on the prospect—instead of short circuiting into panic, I take time to slow down and admit what’s really going on inside of me. I get emotionally honest and say: “What is it that I’m so afraid of here?” and “What does this tension expose in my heart?”
The answers to those questions are awfully important—perhaps even more important than than cracking the mystery proper. At times, I’ve had to tell God, “This passage makes me wonder how you could possibly be fair!” or “These verses make me afraid you don’t love people as much as I do!”
As much as I don’t like saying those things to the Lord, my admissions don’t surprise him. He knows what’s churning in my heart before I confess it. And until I’m willing to go to his living presence and admit my struggles, I can’t progress in my relationship with him very easily.
As I look back through the Bible, I don’t see God flinching when Abraham desperately cries out, “Shall not the judge of the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Jesus quotes David instead of condemning him for saying, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46) When Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32:22-32), or when the Canaanite woman we studied yesterday pushes back into Jesus with her appeal, the Lord engages. Over and again, I see a God who can handle honest human engagement—who even praises those children who dig in and trust him with their real struggles.
Christianity is an invitation to join a God-man partnership, a union the Bible compares to a marriage. It is the beginning of an eternity of union, a union built upon love and trust. The Bible tells us that we are already (in some ways) reigning and that we will will reign even more fully with God as time goes on. (II Timothy 2:12, Hebrews 2:5-9, Psalm 8, Revelation 20:4-6). How could we possibly work out that sort of partnership with systems alone?
As limited mortal beings intersect with an infinite immortal being, we will inevitably find gaps that require honest questions. These gaps would be devastating if God were limited to Greek rationalism, but He’s not. He's actually alive, and he loves us. He IS (linking verb) the WAY (predicate noun that renames the subject), the TRUTH and the LIFE. There is no gap between Jesus and those three claims of identity. He contains them.
This self-declaration stands as the single most powerful epistemological claim humans have ever encountered. It doesn’t just lead to syllogisms. It leads to a marriage.