On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:21-23)
Nelson Mandela, the “father” of the country I live in, has died.
He died because he was a mere man. An extraordinary man, but a mere man.
As I watched the footage covering his life and death, I was reminded of the passage above. Have you noticed that the error of deifying a mortal was committed by the people and not by Herod? The passage never suggests that Herod thought of himself as a god. It was the people who committed the sin of idolatry.
Herod’s sin was not one of commission, but of omission. He failed to correct the people’s error.
The passage stands in stark contrast to a similar incident recorded in the book of Acts, but with a very different outcome:
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. (Acts 14:11-16)
Us humans have a long history of getting our gods and heroes mixed up. It’s a silly idea that was first suggested by a serpent, but we bought into it and allowed it to determine most of our religious development throughout the ages. Frazer’s The Golden Bough does an excellent job of documenting our follies in this regard, especially when it comes to those who rule over us. (See his Incarnate Human Gods to find out more about the elephant headed god Gunputty and Queen Victoria’s divinity. And please ignore his conclusions about Jesus Christ. Frazer is an excellent historian but a poor theologian.)
As Montaigne famously quipped: We do not know how to make a maggot, but we create gods by the dozens.
It is noteworthy that the passage from Acts never disputes Herod’s greatness. It was the origin of that greatness that was at stake. Similarly, Paul and Barnabas’ abilities were not downplayed. Rather, the passage directs the attention away from them and to God as the source of life and goodness.
This is the lesson, and we shall do well to take note of it in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s passing.
Was he a “great man”, according to human standards? Certainly. In fact, he was one of the greatest, and so shall he be remembered.
Did his greatness originate in himself? Certainly not, and we dare not remember him as though it did.
Perhaps you find it disturbing to imagine that Nelson Mandela was a mere mortal that was greatly gifted by God to do what he had done. Perhaps his accomplishments were slightly too “unspiritual” for you to draw such a conclusion. I mean, he did not even confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Why would God allow a man to be filled with power, wisdom and humility without bringing such a man to his knees and publicly declare Christ as Lord?
If you struggle with such questions (and many Christians do), then I wish to remind you of a passage from the Bible that deals with the “calling” of a man who did not worship God:
This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:1-7)
Cyrus II of Persia, like Herod, was known as “the great”. At the time of his reign he created the largest empire the world had ever seen, and his other accomplishments were numerous and legendary. His Biblical significance had to do with his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.
Put simply, Cyrus was raised up by God and made “great” to be an instrument for delivering God’s people from their captivity in Babylon. All his other feats were circumstantial to this one great purpose of his life.
Was it necessary for him to be a converted Jew in order to obey this calling? Not at all. God had a purpose with Cyrus and that purpose was fulfilled in and through Cyrus’ life. Cyrus was great because God made him great, and God made him great for God, not for Cyrus.
None of this should sound strange. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome (note that this was Rome) he wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-4). He goes on to call the authorities “God’s servants” and “agents”.
If you are looking for a historic example of a deeply spiritual human government, please skip Rome. If ever a government embodied the spirit of the Antichrist, Rome was it. Yet they were there because God established them, and he did so for his own purposes.
So why on earth would God raise up a “great” man at the southern tip of Africa to guide a country through democratic elections and prohibit a bloody civil war? To tell you the honest truth, I don’t think anyone has a clue. Maybe one day we will know, but I do not believe that we do at the moment. My best guess is that it is either because of past prayers or future plans that God may have for this country. Or perhaps a bit of both. But I cannot say for certain, and I don’t believe anybody else can.
You may suggest that it was to deliver the oppressed masses, but I don’t think that was the only reason. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place”, Jesus said to Pilate.
God is not in the business of freedom fighting. He is not on the side of the ANC, or, for that matter, on the side of any government. He has established them for his own purposes, but that says no more about his affections for them than it does about his feelings for Rome during the time of their governance.
Of course God is on the side of the oppressed. But his delivery of them is much greater and more inclusive than what we have seen in South Africa. South Africa is not quite the Kingdom of God, and it will never be. Furthermore, many oppressed worldwide will remain oppressed until the coming of Christ. That does not mean that we should be apathetic about their lot, but simply that we should not confuse our humanitarian efforts with the sum total of God’s agenda.
Nelson Mandela was great because God made him great, and he did so for his own purposes. If anyone should get the glory, praise and honour for Mandela’s greatness, then it is God.
Let us not fall into the same error as the crowd in Herod’s day. Let us give praise where praise is due.
And let us not fall into Herod’s error and be quiet about the crowd’s error.
Frank Viola’s post yesterday, Strange Fire: A Refutation – Part I, inspired me to take my dusty copy of John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos off the shelf.
On the inside of the back flap, at the bottom of a page filled with pencil scribbled references and comments, I found a note I made on the day I finished the book: “Excellent! I do believe, however, that God still speaks to the individual concerning personal matters, as well as spiritual matters – of course within the framework of scriptural revelation. 8 January 1993.”
These words took me down memory lane, and reminded me of the liberation I experienced whilst reading the book. I was a young Pentecostal pastor at the time, disturbed and confused by my denomination’s insistence that only those who speak in tongues can claim the “baptism in the Spirit.” For over a decade I had felt like the ugly duckling. I didn’t understand the emotional reactions, the laughing in the Spirit (the Toronto blessing started here in South Africa, believe it or not!), the falling over, the thunderous preaching, the seeming openness to everything prosperity and Word Faith, and so on.
I tried to, believe me, but I could not. I resonated with Watchman Nee, Brother Lawrence and Andrew Murray, but not with my own church’s doctrine.
Chapter 8 of the book changed it all for me. It showed me that the “doctrine of subsequence” had no basis in Biblical theology, and prepared me for my flight from everything Charismatic some years later. I realized the book was somewhat one-sided and perhaps a bit reactionary, but I felt that I could identify with so many of the excesses mentioned by MacArthur that it did not bother me.
I did, however, disagree with the view that God does not speak to individuals in any way other than through the Bible. But this did not bother me much. It represented a certain understanding of revelation, well represented across the Reformed landscape, and did not detract from the book’s weight.
MacArthur had opened a non-Charismatic world for me, and I appreciated him for that.
Some of my richest years in ministry followed my departure from my old denomination. I became a Baptist, a Cessationist, an aspiring 5 point Calvinist (I failed dismally in the end. See my previous post.), a collector of Banner of Truth books, and a lot of other interesting things.
I also drew a cartoon that I cherish to this day:
Then, seven years ago, I stepped out of my new denomination and entered the weird and wonderful world of simple, non-institutional Christianity. The people that I met here were such an inspiration to my spirituality that I (temporarily) decided to overlook those things that I had been fervently crusading against for many years. You guessed it: I ended up loving them more than my commitment to everything anti-Charismatic.
And, in spite of their non-cessationist tendencies, they did not seem nearly as weird as the ones I had run away from in the late nineties.
And so my worn out pendulum (did I mention that I grew up Dutch Reformed?) swung back and silently came to rest in a green meadow besides still waters. The last thing it ever said, before breathing its last, was a gentle “Blessed are the balanced.”
What strikes me about this adventure was that my last big theological shift (I am no longer a Cessationist, as you may have gathered) was heavily influenced by something that had been a non-factor up to that point: Relationships. I discovered, in the context of the true ekklesia, that it was okay to love someone passionately whilst disagreeing with some of his or her views. But I also discovered that it was okay to adjust some of your own views in order for this to happen.
This may sound heretical to some, and extremely dangerous. But trust me: It’s not. The good Lord has built his church in such way that it allows for great relationships between people with different opinions (my wife believes in the rapture), but with an inbuilt proviso that such differences do not compromise our common life in Christ.
This shapes our theology more than mere “understanding”, and means that the blessings of real fellowship between believers with different opinions can only occur where Jesus Christ is the true life of the church. This is no cliché, but the reality of a common birth, a common Father, a common inheritance, a common passion. I have still to meet someone who shares all of these things with me but who is theologically so haywire that I feel I cannot have fellowship with them.
Interestingly, I have found that when people do cross God’s doctrinal boundaries (for the lack of a better term), the magic of the relationship dissipates. True heretics make bad prayer partners. You do not need to review Grudem’s Systematic Theology to arrive at this conclusion. You FEEL it, and you do so because God is faithful and he loves his church.
If I had read Charismatic Chaos later on in life, I may not have given it the glowing Amazon review that I did way back then. I think it helped a lot of people in my situation, and I will always appreciate it for that. But nowadays I tend to view truth somewhat differently. I believe it is not merely shaped cognitively, but also (and especially) relationally. The way in which John deals with “The Charismatics” (as the book was originally called) does not do relational justice to many dear sincere brothers and sisters in the Lord who merely hold to a different pneumatology than the rest of us.
As I once explained it:
Christianity is a relationship, and it should be approached as one. As with any romance, you learn as you go along. The main ingredients are desire, passion, intimacy, time spent together, willingness to learn, willingness to submit to the interests of the other, and so on. As a most intimate encounter of the life of another, it is something that can never be transferred merely cognitively. “Knowing the Lord” cannot be taught, as Jeremiah stated explicitly in his description of the terms and conditions of the New Covenant. It must be caught.
A young couple experiencing their first kiss gains a different type of knowledge than a monk reading about the biological processes accompanying a first kiss. We get a glimpse of this knowledge in the Old Testament statement “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” This type of covenant knowing can only take place when the knower’s life is dissolved in the encountered life — when the two become one. It is a knowledge that transcends all mental processes, although the memory thereof is preserved mentally, and can be discussed mentally.
This means that such a discussion is only fruitful between those who can relate to the experience. It’s like saying “So that is what your first kiss was like. Let me tell you about mine!” Cognition is not ruled out, but it is subject to an encounter that brings with it a revelation.
And so Christianity is not blind mysticism, nor is it extra-Biblical. Rather, it is an experience that becomes increasingly informed through practice and discussion. Of course such information can find its way into poetry, and lend itself to analysis. But it always remains subject to a living encounter between the lover and the beloved.
True church life is the collective experience of the above, and the inevitable celebration associated with it. It is one new humanity encountering Christ. It is the bride meeting her Groom. It is covenant knowledge experienced communally. It is to feast on the tree of life and share the experience of resurrection and growth. It also happens to be an experience of oneness with one another that transcends mutuality by far.
What do you think?
(Please Note: I did not intend to publish this post today, and I never intended it to be a response to anything or anyone. It was meant as a mere continuing reflection of the issue under discussion here, and quite coincidentally happened to touch on the secondary issue of “election”, “predestination”, “Calvinism” or whatever you may wish to call it. However, John Piper published his “Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election” yesterday, and so I thought it would be appropriate to hasten the publishing of this article so as to provide another angle to the whole discussion. The title is tongue-in-cheeck, but the five numbered paragraphs below does indeed provide five distinct Scriptural reasons why election does not take place in a vacuum and cannot be portrayed as “unconditional”. If the length bothers you, approach it like the proverbial elephant: One piece at a time!)
Most of the last few posts on this blog have been dedicated to exploring the mystery of denominationalism. How can it be that one body, functioning under the authority of one head, constantly divides itself in the name of that head, and (as unbelievable as this may sound) as an expression of its allegiance to that head?
If you have been following the series you will remember that this question arose from another one: What does it mean to be “simple” or “organic” in our understanding and expression of the church of Jesus Christ?
Whilst these terms may mean different things to different people, they are pretty unambiguous as far as one basic principle is concerned: The life that animates the body (and that includes the body of Christ) is not something complicated. It is not a thing engineered or driven by contemporary sources of authority, such as psychology, or motivational theory, or the management sciences, or marketing strategies.
Neither is it a type of social dynamic, such as you may experience at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, or at the local retirement village’s bowling green on a sunny Saturday.
No. This life is a life of its own. It is natural. It emanates from God himself and is sustained by him. It transcends reason (although it certainly does not exclude it), and is not subject to a particular “doctrinal” understanding in order to be experienced. (If this statement makes your hair stand up, keep on reading.)
As C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity: “People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard have: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works . . . I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality . . . You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.”
Turn First, Then See
Of course Lewis is not giving us a license for heresy here. And neither did Jesus Christ when he said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life… yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
The point behind both these quotes is that the powers of the intellect cannot produce life, no mater how diligently they are applied. Rather, life is experienced through an active participation in some or other source of life (“…come to me that you may have life”), preceded by a seeming voluntary commitment to do so (“yet you refuse…”).We’ll say more about that little word “voluntary” in a moment.
Once this happens, “understanding” becomes a possibility. “He certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it”, Lewis says, sounding a bit like Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
The “turning” is primary, the understanding secondary. You first come to Jesus, who is life, and then you understand the Scriptures. Commitment precedes interpretation. In fact, commitment determines interpretation. (See my post On Faith and Reason for further clarity on this issue.)
Remember Jesus’ words at the Feast of Booths, spoken in response to the question of his learning without ever having studied? “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” The message cannot be clearer. You first choose to submit to God’s will, and then you develop an uncanny ability to discern God’s truth.
If you remain unconvinced, think about theses words of Jesus: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” Allegiance precedes revelation, in other words.
The Mystery of Election
The principle runs like a golden thread through the Bible. There are many more verses that highlight this fundamental truth of Scripture. When understood correctly, they shed a most amazing light on one of the church’s greatest controversies, namely the issue of “election” or “predestination.”
I do not wish to elaborate on this here, as this would require a separate series of blog posts. Yet the issue is relevant to the current series of posts as far as the “determinism” of the human will is concerned, and so I will offer at least a synopsis.
Proponents of the so-called TULIP theology, usually referred to as “Calvinists”, are quick to point out that the human will is in bondage and that it requires the life-giving grace of God to be set free in order to choose for God. Verses like the following ones are oftentimes used to support this idea:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Acts 16:14
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. John 6:44
And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. Matthew 13:11
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. Acts 13:48
Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls… Romans 9:11-12
No one can argue with these verses. At first glance it would indeed appear that our wills are in bondage and that God sovereignly chooses which wills to liberate (graciously) and which wills to leave in bondage (justifiably).
However, a careful reading of the above passages reveal that the “determinism” implied in them are preceded by something else, namely a commitment of sorts on the side of the people who eventually became the recipients of God’s sovereign grace.
1. A Tale of Two God-Fearers
Lydia, for instance, was already a “worshiper of God” before God opened her heart to the preaching of the gospel. Similarly, Acts 10 tells the story of Cornelius on whom the Holy Spirit fell (quite sovereignly, I would say) whilst he and his household were listening to Peter’s preaching of the gospel.
But, as with Lydia, this divine intervention was preceded by something else. Before Cornelius or his family had even heard of the gospel or Peter’s existence, we read that he was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people and prayed continually to God.”
Is this coincidence? Whilst the ability to hear, understand and respond to the gospel was clearly one sovereignly given by God to Cornelius and Lydia, there is not a single verse implying that their pre-Christian commitment to God was also sovereignly handed to them. On the contrary, both these narratives paint a picture of a general, basic and fundamental commitment to God that was rewarded by a specific and special revelation of him. The first commitment was free, the second determined and irresistible.
2. No one can come to ME unless…
This sheds some much-needed light on the “problematic” second verse quoted above. Do the words “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” mean “no one who is not a Jew or a Christian can sincerely fear and worship the unknown God that is perceived in nature and through conscience unless the Father draws them to do so?“ Not necessarily. The Bible nowhere speaks of such a double-drawing.
Of course Calvinists would argue that Lydia and Cornelius’ God-fearing traits were symptomatic of their already existing calling, and not causal to it. But the Bible nowhere says this. The Bible introduces them as God fearers whose hearts were opened by God once they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not before. As Peter said to the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem Council: “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us.”
If this is true, then it means that the ones drawn by the Father to the Son are not drawn randomly because of God’s elective purposes, but because of their inner willingness to submit to God, regardless of their level of religious or theological understanding. (I’ll get to Jacob and Esau, in case they have just popped into your mind.)
This is no place to debate how such a willingness may manifest itself, or whether it is always as evident and pronounced as was the case with Cornelius and Lydia, and so I will not touch on this issue here. Suffice it to say that this particular verse only refers to a coming to Christ (hence the capitalized “me” in the caption above), and does not infer anything regarding an inability of the “pagan” or “gentile” who is confronted with God’s “general revelation” and an accompanying option (or absence thereof) to worship and fear the “unknown God”. On the contrary, the very next verse sheds some light on the fact that the “drawing” of the Father does not take place in a vacuum, but is preceded by an active participation on the part of the believer, exactly as was the case with Cornelius and Lydia. We will return to verse 45 towards the end of this article.
3. The Secrets of the Kingdom
This brings us to our third verse. The words “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given”, sound pretty conclusive, don’t they? Not if you read the rest of the passage.
The quotation, of course, is taken from the famous “Parable of the Sower.” Whilst most Christians know this parable, many of us are unaware of its central message. It is in this message that we will find a startling revelation regarding the so-called tension between “God’s sovereignty” and “human responsibility”.
The parable appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The three accounts do not differ much, although Mark and Luke contain a statement that is not found in Matthew. This statement is essential for our understanding of the parable. Mark presents it at the end of the parable, and as its conclusion and practical application. The passage in its entirety reads as follows:
Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
Before we discuss this statement, as contained in the last paragraph above, let us note that the parable is about a sower, his seed and the ground on which it falls. Although there is only one sower and one type of seed, there are six different outcomes. Of these three are negative and three positive. It is the aim of the parable to illustrate why the effect of the seed differ so vastly, in spite of it being the same seed sown by the same sower.
Path – no fruit
Rocks – no fruit
Thorns – no fruit
Good soil – 30 fold
Good soil – 60 fold
Good soil – 100 fold
The seed is identified as the “word” in Mark and “the word of God” in Luke. The path, the rocky ground, the thorns and the good soil are identified as the various locations where the recipients of the word are. These locations determine, in each case, how the word is received after it has been “heard”. It is important to note that all “hear” the word and that this is the only common denominator between them. The effect that the word has on them, however, is fully determined by the particular place they are at in their lives at the time of hearing.
The statement found at the end of Mark’s account, and also in Luke 8:18, is pivotal for understanding the parable. Note the words “more” and “taken away”. In Luke we read “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away”. Mark adds: “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.”
Here is the solution to the predicament: The different outcomes depend on the way in which the word is “heard”. Those who “consider carefully” what they hear fill up their measure and so qualify themselves for receiving more. They are contrasted with those who hear but allow Satan to take away the word that was sown in them (the seed along the path), those who hear the word but have no root (the seed sown on rocky places) and those who hear but allow the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things to come in and choke the word (the seed among the thorns).
In summary then, three groups hear the word intently and receive more of the same word, whilst three groups hear the word carelessly and has it taken away from them. But let us note something else. The responsibility of humans and the sovereignty of God are not at odds here. They co-exist. It is the responsibility of humans to “take care” how they hear, and it is God who “gives more” or “take away”. We choose whether we will hear or not. God chooses whether he will give more or take away. His sovereign intervention in the process does not take place in a vacuum. It is based on the way in which we hear.
If any doubt remains, look at our quoted verse again: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (Matthew’s version says “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven…”). The disciples are living examples of those to whom more has been given. They understand the secrets of the kingdom. Those “on the outside” don’t. Parables are secrets to them. They see but do not perceive, they hear but do not understand.
It is clear that God is the one giving the “knowledge of the secrets”. The disciples cannot do this, no matter how hard they try. Yet God’s sovereign gift of revelation is not independent from their responsibility. They cannot force the revelation, and God does not force their hearing.
There is a last principle that we need to note. Mark’s words “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” are expanded upon in Matthew, where we read: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
Note that Isaiah predicted a future judgment of deafness and blindness on the people. But also note that this grim forecast was preceded by something else. The people first closed their own eyes. God’s judgment was not something that came out of the blue. It was an intensifying of a condition that the people had already succumbed to quite willingly. The callousness of their hearts preceded the ultimate deafness of their ears and blindness of their eyes. God merely gave them over to that which they had already chosen. And so Isaiah becomes the ideal commentator to clarify Jesus’ teaching as set out in the parable of the sower.
One can hardly read this without being reminded of a rather scary passage in 2 Thessalonians: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Note: These people refused to love and believe the truth, and God then sends the delusion.
Again, God’s sovereignty and humanity’s responsibility are not at odds. They co-exist, and the one never functions at the expense of the other.
Let us summarise. The people in the parable, the disciples themselves and the individuals referred to by Isaiah and Paul all provide us with the same message: Humans are responsible at a very basic level. What they do with this responsibility will determine the way in which God will intervene in their lives. They first “turn”, and then they “see”. As I said at the beginning of this post: Commitment precedes interpretation. In fact, commitment determines interpretation. It is as simple as that.
God Finds, and Then Chooses
If we only had the parable of the sower we may have wanted to debate this conclusion. But we don’t. The principle is evident all over Scripture. In fact, it is overwhelming.
Before we look at our last two verses, let us consider an important implication of the conclusion above. The parable of the sower is about seeing and hearing, but it is more than that. It is about two types of seeing and hearing. The one takes place at a basic level and is the responsibility of humans. The other takes place at an advanced level and is the responsibility of God. The first is the prerequisite of the second. It is the qualification, if you wish. There seems to be a “general revelation” accessible to all people, and a “special revelation” accessible to a select few.
The first has to do with a faith-commitment of sorts, the second with a God-given understanding. Those who work well with the first are granted access to the second. The first depends on the heart, and so Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abram had access to it, even though their theological understanding was “pagan” by Jewish or Christian theological standards. (For instance, Abram could “believe” and receive an accreditation of righteousness without ever having read the Old or New Testament.) The second has to do with a peculiar and specific understanding of God, such as the revelation given to Noah about the coming judgment, or the prophetic insights of Enoch, or the calling of Abram.
On that last point: Years ago I asked a Calvinistic believer if he thought Abram had to “qualify” in any way to be called by God. Naturally, the dear brother was shocked by the very suggestion. According to his theological system the insinuation bordered on blasphemy. I told him about the pattern that runs throughout Scripture, namely that a particular calling and/or revelation of God always seems to be preceded by some or other condition of the heart. I then showed him a verse in Nehemiah 9 that he had never considered: “You are the LORD, 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…” Interestingly, God did two things: He found, and he chose. Never is it stated that Abram’s faithful heart was sovereignly created by God. God “found” it like that, and then he chose Abram as an instrument for both revelation and service.
This accords with the “election” of David. During the legendary lineup that preceded God’s choice of Israel’s king, God whispered to Samuel: “…the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Clearly David had the heart God was looking for, as the rest of the narrative reveals. This fact is confirmed in Acts 13 where we read “he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’” God found, and then he raised up. The pattern is clear.
It would appear that the disciples understood this pattern. At the end of Acts 1 we read: “And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” Yet again: God knows the heart, and then he chooses.
After sharing these verses, my friend responded angrily: “That is nonsense. God creates the heart!” Yes, he does. But nowhere is it stated that he sovereignly creates the heart with a deterministic bent and then pretends to “find” it like that.
The Progressive Nature of Revelation
One thing that is clear from this is that revelation is progressive, and that the relationship between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty seems to change in line with this progression. Like the seed used to symbolise God’s word, our understanding of God and his kingdom begins small and grows towards maturity. But the more it grows, the smaller we become.
Our responsibility has to with the quality of the soil and with planting and watering. God’s part has to do with the growing of the seed. Our will plays a huge role at the outset, but God’s will becomes more prominent as we grow up in him.
As John the Baptist declared: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And as Jesus said to Peter: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
4. Appointed to Eternal Life?
Our second last verse quoted above reads as follows: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
I have oftentimes heard this verse quoted in my discussions with Calvinists (many of whom are dear friends, just in case you wondered). After many years of contemplating this issue, I began to see the pattern described above, namely that God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of people (especially in regards to the revelation of his Son) is preceded by a certain predisposition of the heart that is portrayed in the Bible as the responsibility of the individual. As mentioned above, the New Testament sometimes refers to such people as “God-fearers”.
With this in mind, I found myself staring at Acts 13:48 one day. It was a strange verse, I had to admit. Some of the Antiochians were “appointed to eternal life” and, accordingly, responded to the gospel message. Clearly others were not appointed to eternal life, and did not respond. How does that work?
But then I thought about the pattern of Scripture: If there is a clearly stated divine and sovereign intervention by God, it was usually preceded by some or other reference to the “heart” or to “fearing God”. A sudden expectation welled up in me as my eyes began skimming the page. The next moment I read: “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation.” This was verse 26 and it preceded verse 48! Furthermore, verse 16 recounts Paul’s opening statement to the Antiochians: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.”
These words were spoken during Paul’s first Sabbath in Antioch, in the synagogue and to the Jews, and was understood at the time as being exclusively Jewish in their application. But then Paul and Barnabas explicitly “turn to the gentiles” (verse 46) and the true application of those words become clear. The “gentiles” were not a third group besides “the family of Abraham” and the “God-fearers”, but included in the latter. The “God-fearers” were not simply an official group of proselytized gentiles, but anyone who had a basic fear and respect for God. These were the ones to whom God graciously granted the revelation of his son. The pattern manifested itself yet again!
As Solomon stated famously, wisely and prophetically: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.
5. Jacob and Esau
Romans 9 is oftentimes used as the trump card of Calvinism. As John Piper wrote:
“All my objections to unconditional election collapsed when I could no longer explain away Romans 9… So to illustrate the point of God’s unconditional election, Paul uses the analogy of Jacob and Esau: “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — [Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (verses 11–12). In other words, God’s original purpose in choosing individuals for himself out of Israel — and all the nations! (Revelation 5:9) — was not based on any conditions that they would meet. It was an unconditional election. And thus he says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (verse 15; see verses 16–18; Romans 11:5–7).”
However, the purpose of Romans 9 is not to explain why Johnny next door was predetermined to eternal wrath whilst Suzy across the road was predetermined to eternal glory. No, the chapter itself provides the purpose: It is to explain why “the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it whilst the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.” (v 30-31).
In other words, the metaphor had to express how those of whom is said “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises…” (verse 4) could have “stumbled over the stumbling stone” (verse 32), whilst those who were not God’s people could be called God’s people, and those who were not God’s loved one could be called God’s loved one (verse 25). This uncanny reversal of these two people groups is the issue, and it raises the question: Where can one find a more fitting analogy than a physical portrayal of the “older serving the younger”, and the firstborn’s rights being handed to the second born, than the story of Jacob and Esau?
Romans 9 has nothing to do with individual election and everything with the unexpected inclusion of the gentiles into God’s plan of salvation. Paul’s point is that God is God and that he can embrace and accept a foreign people, based on his mercy, whilst he may resist his own people in spite of their works. Indeed, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (verse 16). The contrast is not between reprobate Johnny and predestined Suzy, but between the mercy of the New Covenant, extended to the gentiles who did not have the works of the law, and an incorrect works-based hermeneutic upheld by Israel.
As I once explained it: ‘I can choose who I want’ is not the statement of a father to all his children after he has chosen only the oldest brother to accompany him on a fishing trip, but rather the statement of the father to the older brother after he has chosen the smaller brothers to accompany the two of them on their next fishing trip.
This, and this alone, is the potter’s lesson. To read more into Romans 9 is to speculate dangerously.
This post has now become unfashionably long and I have to land, even though we have only scratched the surface of an amazing doctrine of Scripture.
The main thesis of this article is astoundingly simple: We are completely responsible and God is completely sovereign. However, our responsibility and God’s sovereignty are to be found at different intersections on the highway of God’s progressive revelation, and so even though they co-exist they do not do so in a mysterious and frustrating tension that is inconceivable to our grey matter and that necessitates some dark background with lists of names that are engraved in concrete as far as their owner’s eternal destiny is concerned.
Humans have a basic responsibility, and that is to fear God. It is a responsibility given to all people everywhere and they are accountable in this regard. No human can escape this and all humans have a sufficient grasp of eternity in their hearts to respond in this way to God. Depending on their free and chosen response to this, God will progressively make himself known to these individuals. It is as simple as that. Likewise, the “measure of light” in people’s lives (for the lack of a better term) will one day constitute the criteria for their ultimate judgment.
The revelation that Jesus Christ is the son of the Living God is indeed one that cannot be facilitated by a human, or freely considered and then voluntarily accepted or rejected. No, it is a God-given miracle of enlightenment, and in this sense all Calvinists are spot-on and should be saluted. Yet this revelation does not take place in a vacuum, and here they are incorrect. Such revelation is the logical conclusion and manifestation of a life that has already subjected itself to God, albeit in a basic, mysterious and even theologically ignorant way.
To try and define the terms and conditions of such “submission” would be sheer idiocy, and should be avoided at all costs. Perhaps we can dare to say that an immoral drunkard may have more of this basic matter in his heart than an upright religious man. However, such interaction between a person and his/her God is intimate and mysterious beyond description, and thus can never be defined.
And so all the verses that appear to speak of an “election” in the New Testament, based on their suggestion that to come to Christ is not a voluntary act but an involuntary one, need not make us hysterical. Using the “pattern” above, I will conclude with a number of them, as well as some others that display the same pattern:
Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. John 6: 45
(Note that the responsibility of hearing and learning from the Father precedes the “coming” to Jesus. Also note that this verse follows our second verse discussed above, namely “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”)
If God were your Father, you would love me… John 8:42
(Need I say anything else?)
He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God. John 8:47
(Here Jesus is referring to people hearing his own words. The same pattern emerges. “Belonging” to God precedes hearing the words of Jesus. The first is voluntary, the second determined.)
Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. John 18:37
(Same pattern. “Siding with the truth” precedes listening to Jesus, and appears to be a free and voluntary act.)
The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:25-27
(As above. Faith in Christ is determined and preceded by being part of his “sheep”, but nothing indicates that he has sovereignly made some into sheep and others not. In this context, sheep are those who have learned to follow the voice of the shepherd before his actual appearance. John 6: 45 above applies yet again.)
There are many other examples, but these will suffice. My only intention here is to indicate that the so-called determinism in salvation seems to be linked to coming to Christ, and never to the basic underlying condition of “siding with the truth”, “listening to the Father”, and so on. These appear to be the responsibility of the individual, and so “election” can never be represented as something “unconditional”.
Lastly, the implicit horror of Calvinism (apologies to my Calvinistic brothers and sisters, but that is the way many of us perceive a doctrine that teaches that Jesus Christ did not die for all people, and that billions of souls were created for an eternal torment about which they can do absolutely nothing) is completely neutralized when approached from the standpoint above. In this scheme, both our responsibility and God’s sovereignty remain intact.
May the God who loves the whole world, and that includes every single solitary soul, bless you and keep you.
A meditation for the morning: (The language is archaic and non-inclusive, I know. Please ignore, or skip the reading if you can’t. It is an extract from a personal journal and was never intended for a blog. The only reason I’m publishing it is that it has greatly assisted me in my understanding of spiritual matters, and that there may be some solitary soul out there who may also benefit by reading it.)
All of life is mediation. The reason is the alienation of man from himself, his fellow man, his environment and his very own speech.
Man relates with himself through other men. He sees and feels himself based on what other men want, not what he himself wants. He is a stranger to himself, and he only finds familiarity by looking to his neighbor. His neighbor is the standard, the bridge to himself. And so he lives through his neighbor. His neighbor is his mediator to himself. If he cannot imitate his neighbor he sinks into isolation. He loses connection with himself.
Man relates with his fellow man through pretense. He has to pretend that he is like his fellow man in order to reach his fellow man. His mask is his bridge to community. He does not realize that he himself is a neighbor to his fellow man, that he himself is perceived as being original. That is how strong his pretense is. He deceives not only his neighbor but also himself. He does not see himself as someone else’s beginning. He remains an actor, for without the charade he ceases to exist.
Man relates with his environment through hope. His environment provides him with the means to build a mask, and so he is attracted to his environment. He does not see nature as it is. He sees nature as it can be. Nature presents the bridge to the wish dream, and the hope of the wish dream the bridge to nature. Man’s relationship with nature is the relationship of the wood carver who robs the life of the tree to make an idol.
And so man lives happily in nature and next to his fellow man, thinking that he has established a community of reciprocal appreciation. But man is eluded. There is no community, only a constant interaction between actors on a stage. There is no reality, only a lie. It is for this lie that man lives. Man cannot tolerate the truth, for the truth means that he ceases to exist.
The unmediated life is the life that Christ brought to the world. It is life itself, not a pretense of life or a description of life. This life is its own mediator. I am the life, Christ said. Christ is the mediator, Paul said. And so this life mediates itself.
What this means is that the original relationship with man himself, with other men and with his environment is restored in Christ. In Christ we do not relate with ourselves through other men. We relate with ourselves through Christ. We see ourselves as he sees us. And so a direct and unmediated relationship with ourselves becomes possible. We no longer have to pay an indulgence to be accepted by ourselves. We become acceptable through Christ. There is no longer any bridge that leads to ourselves. Christ is the bridge. The man in Christ loves himself as Christ loved him. He does not need to impress himself from a distance. There is no distance. Man embraces himself. Man loves himself. Man is happy with himself. This is not the toxic love that man has for the image that he has created of himself. No, this is the unmediated love of an unmediated self for an unmediated self.
The relationship with man’s neighbor is changed. Christ now becomes the bridge to the neighbor. Man relates to his neighbor honestly. He does not need to visit his neighbor as a pretender, because he loves himself as Christ has loved him. He loves his neighbor in the same way. He sees his neighbor for who re really is. He sees behind the pretense. He loves his neighbor, and he disregards the mask. He has become a true neighbor, not a fellow pretender.
Man now sees nature for what it is. Nature is no longer beautiful because it enhances the image of man. It is beautiful because it was created by Christ and for Christ. Christ is the door to man’s environment as he is the door to man’s neighbor and to man himself.
The man of no mediation sees the world as it is. The veil has been removed. His relationship with nature and men is now direct and original.
But it does not stop here. The meaning of words is changed. In a sense all words are instruments of mediation. In a sense all words are adjectives. They all describe something, even if they are verbs or personal pronouns. But when mediation ceases words are no longer descriptors. That which is signified by them begins to describe its very self. For the man of no mediation the things are given their own voices. They reveal themselves. And so this man is reluctant to describe what he sees, for he understands that words cannot convey reality. He understands that one final Word summarised and included all other words in Himself. What is needed is a private meeting between men and things, and so the man of no mediation removes himself to make this happen. He is slow to speak. When he does speak he proclaims Christ, for Christ is more intelligible than the words of men. Christ is the Word.
The man of no mediation sees no need to explain Christ. He is not an apologist. Rather, he seeks to enforce the explanations of Christ. This is what it means to preach Christ. It is to allow him to speak, not to muzzle him in order to speak on behalf of him.
As a part of the current series, which focuses on the way in which our preconceived ideas determine our perceptions (especially our theological ones), I would like to interrupt myself and ask a simple question:
What do you think of when you hear the word “disciple”?
If you are like most people the word will conjure up an ideal standard of Christian commitment. There are normal Christians, and then there are… disciples.
The conventional wisdom goes something like this: A disciple is one who has distinguished him or herself as wholly dedicated to the Lord. To become a disciple is the goal of Christianity, and discipleship is the means to get people there. We need to make disciples, not just converts. Once a person has attained to the status of a disciple he or she has fulfilled the intention of the great commission. A disciple is distinguished from a mere believer as the finished house is distinguished from its blueprint.
Does some of this sound familiar? Are you more or less in agreement with these statements? If so, you may have missed one of the central and most vital messages of the New Testament. By giving some special status to the term “disciple” you may very well have robbed yourself of the very thing that is intended by the word.
In the first place, the word has absolutely nothing to do with attaining to some spiritual level. Whilst it may have overtones of commitment and discipline (many people erroneously believe that the word disciple is a derivative of the word “discipline”), these have more to do with the actual meaning we have assigned to the word than the word itself.
The word disciple is a classic example of the confusion that arises when a Biblical word is not translated but transliterated, that is, the transcription of a word in one language into corresponding letters of another language without regard to the original meaning.
Disciple is a transliteration of the Latin “discipulus” which carries the same meaning as the Greek New Testament’s “Mathetes”, namely a “learner”, “student,” “pupil,” “apprentice,” or “adherent”. Of course none of these meanings are retained in the English word disciple.
Let us consider the implication of this for a moment. Don’t you think there is something slightly weird about a commandment to “go and make learners of all nations”? This would imply that people in a pre-evangelised state are not learners, and that the intention behind the so-called “Great Commission” is to turn them into ones.
But wait, it gets weirder. This would also imply that to become a disciple is not to live up to some level of commitment, but to be reduced to the level of one who needs guidance. It is to let go of preconceived notions and to open oneself up for receiving new information. To become a disciple is not to reach the end of the road, but to be placed at the beginning of it. It is not a destination, but a point of departure. It is not an accomplishment, but an emptying.
The Call to Learn
None of this should be surprising. The New Testament overflows with verses speaking about the necessity of learning:
• Repentance (metanoia in Greek, from meta and nous) means a “changing of the mind”.
• The transformation that follows repentance takes place through a “renewing of the mind” (Rom.12: 2).
• Spiritual warfare, according to Paul, has to do with breaking down strongholds, and such strongholds are defined as “arguments and opinions raised against the knowledge of God”. Paul further defines spiritual warfare as “taking thoughts captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
• In the same passage mentioned above, Satan is depicted as the one who leads people’s thoughts astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (11:2) and who “blinds the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4).
• The New Testament depicts unbelievers as having been given up to a “debased mind” (Rom.1: 28), as walking “in the futility of their minds” and as being “darkened in their understanding” (Eph. 4:18).
This explains why Christianity is a lifelong process of learning. The subject matter, of course, is nothing but Christ himself, in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”, providing the rich resource for reaching the “riches of full assurance and understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery” (Col. 2:2-3). We are “taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21). In fact, he IS the truth, John says (John 14:6), explaining his earlier statement that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The incarnation of the Word is the objective dynamic in this equation. The process of “learning” is the subjective dynamic. The one cannot exist without the other.
And so Jesus says “learn from me” (Matt. 11:29), and Paul says “you have not so learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). Jesus Christ is our curriculum, and he has preserved the revelation of Himself in the Scriptures outside of us, his Spirit within us and his Body around us. And so we have no excuse not to “learn him”.
If you were given the knowledge above and then the assignment to formulate a “great commission” for the church (without any preconceived ideas) you may very well have written it exactly as it appears in Matthew’s gospel. Clearly the first step on the narrow road leading to life is to become a “learner”. This is no accomplishment or badge of distinction, but rather a painful and humbling “letting go” of personal convictions, opinions, paradigms and the like.
It is to embrace the poverty of spirit prescribed in the first line of the Sermon on the Mount. It is to aspire to the education of Christ, and to say with him “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 17:16). It is to stop being Martha and to become Mary. It is to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive from him.
If you have not first become a learner you cannot progress any further on the path of liberation from your own dearly held convictions that have put your thought life into bondage, that determine your emotions and ultimate dictate your actions. And so this point is essential for our exploration of the disunity that has plagued the church of Jesus Christ for so long. Stay posted…
So where is the elephant? (If you think I’ve lost my mind, you may wish to refer to the previous post.)
To answer this, look at the picture on the left.
Do you see the Dalmatian? If not, take another look. If you still cannot see it, scroll down to the end of this post and look at the same picture, this time with the contours connected. Then return here. The dog should now emerge from the black blobs.
Once you “see” the Dalmatian you are confirming something that has both fascinated and puzzled scholars for a very long time, namely the human brain’s propensity to deceive its owner.
Why am I saying this? For the simple reason that THERE IS NO DALMATIAN in the picture. At least not according to the normal accepted definition of a pictorial representation of an animal. The contours of the dog are illusory, which explains why some of you had to have a kick start before you could see it.
So what do you see then if not an actual Dalmatian? You are in fact seeing an image that is inferred by your brain based on all its prior experiences with Dalmatians that were real. Your exposure to certain objective connections in time and space created neural pathways in your grey matter that now cause those very connections to be made when you see a mere few clues associated with them.
Compare the following two pictures:
Would anyone say that the lines in the left picture represent a bird? Surely not. Yet most people immediately see a bird in the picture on the right. Why? The lines in the two pictures are exactly the same, but in the picture on the right they are arranged in such a way that they recall the form of a bird that is stored in your mind.
This habit of the human brain may be fascinating, but it is hardly innocent. If you look at the picture below you will understand why:
This is not a bird. It is a face of a man, drawn on the lines of the “bird” above. By connecting them in a way that does not conform to the strong associations of a little feathered creature in our minds, a completely different picture emerges. If I were to say a moment ago that the “bird picture” represented the face of a man you would have thought that I was a bit confused. Yet I would have been no more wrong or right than those who said it was a bird. I simply chose to connect the lines according to a different association.
Examples of these mind tricks abound. There is a triangle in the picture below, right? Wrong. There is no triangle. It is inferred based on a game your brain started playing when you first picked up those little red blocks in kindergarten.
Instead of seeing a triangle I much prefer to see 3 angry Pac-Men attacking one of those little critters from the beloved eighties arcade game. Why not? It’s much more fun than a triangle that is not even there.
(If you struggle to make the interfering triangle disappear, squint and focus on the top Pac-Man until the black in the picture becomes dominant over the white. The triangle will vanish and you will see a completely different picture.)
We will get back to our elusive elephant in a moment, but before we do so, let us consider another way in which our brains employ the very mechanism above to make sense of bits-and-pieces information and turn them into cohesive wholes.
You may not be aware of it, but when you recall past experiences you are also joining dots. The human memory does not retrieve an entire file associated with an event in the same way that a clerk would retrieve a law office file containing all the information associated with a case. Rather, it dips into the file and selects the highlights of the event. “Highlights” typically include the beginning of the event, the end, and any extraordinary or emotionally high-impact occurrences in between.
This leaves us with the job of connecting the bits by filling in the blanks. As with the picture of the “bird” above, we tend to do so in the way that seems most obvious to us. The result is that we oftentimes reconstruct our memories according to our own biases and preferences instead of the way in which the actual events took place. We impose an “idea” of sorts on the bits of information our brains feed us, and in the process we become poor witnesses and excellent storytellers.
One of the best examples of the “connection” phenomenon is the illusion of motion that is created by looking at a movie. A series of separate pictures played at a certain speed on a projector causes the stationary images to disappear and to be replaced with a lifelike rendition of the events that were filmed. Few people actually pause to think how strange this is when they watch a movie. They don’t realise that they are, in fact, witnessing a powerful demonstration of the mind’s determination to connect loose bits of information into a cohesive and sensible whole.
The Principle of Gestalt
The habit of relying on some or other “big picture” in order to make sense of the information presented to us pretty much dominates our lives, and has been noted by scholars for centuries.
The line of study that is most commonly associated with these principles is known as “Gestalt theory” or “Gestalt psychology”, the German school of psychology that traces its origin to the early twentieth century and to the work of the Czech-born psychologist Max Wertheimer.
Gestalt is a German word for pattern, form or shape and is employed in the English language to refer to the concept of wholeness, especially in the sense that it is used in the Gestalt motto: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.
What distinguished the Gestalt school of psychology from its counterparts at the time was its insistence that perception is not a passive apprehension and mental storage of observable details, but an active and dynamic process of seeking some sort of order, pattern or form of which the details would only be a part.
As Wertheimer put it in the introductory sentence of one his famous papers: “I stand at the window and see a house, trees, sky. Theoretically I might say there were 327 brightnesses and nuances of colour. Do I have “327”? No. I have sky, house, and trees.”
The Sum, the Parts and the Elephant
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see how the predominant “gestalt” or “big picture” held by your mind can actually obliterate the intended message of a single bit of information.
Which finally brings us to our elephant (phew). The six men in Saxe’s poem each made the same mistake. They allowed a strong existing association to impose itself on their sensory experiences and so provide the illusion of a final understanding. Their existing insights, valid as they were, caused their exegesis to be “interrupted” and turned them into heretics.
Interrupted theologians are all around us, and it is not difficult to see why. The moment the brain detects a suitable pattern from its storehouse for making sense of the bits of information presented to it, it sees no need for further exploration. Needless to say, this illusion of a final insight is the breeding ground for heresy.
I may make myself unpopular here, but it is my firm conviction that Confucius’ tormentors (See previous post) all suffer from this malady. By allowing themselves the luxury of a preferred theological gestalt (a “pet doctrine” in plain English), they have shaped the entire gospel into a form that resonates deeply with them but that is in fact a caricature of the real thing.
This issue is so huge that I will address it in a separate post. I intend citing examples from the most popular of current theological streams, and I am hoping for some insightful discussion.
Until we do so, take some time and consider the following verses in light of the above:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. Matthew 6:22-23
To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. Titus 1:15
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. Proverbs 18:2
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:17
Those of you who have visited my About page will recognise the picture on the left. It appears there as a biographical sketch, and that is indeed what it is. Literally and figuratively.
The picture is called Denominational Nightmare, and the man behind the scream is Confucius (A derivative of confusion, nothing to do with the revered Chinese philosopher). I drew it in the mid-nineties, when I needed to express an emotion that could not possibly be conveyed with words.
I use the picture nowadays for teaching purposes. It is an ideal representation of five main streams of Christianity. See if you can spot them:
1. The Intellectuals or Dogmatists. Some would say “the thinkers”.
Some key words: Doctrine, teaching, truth, study, objective.
Some labels: Reformed, Calvinist, Neo-Calvinist.
Some names: Piper, Sproul, Mohler, MacArthur, Schaeffer.
Some books: Anything by the Banner of Truth Trust.
2. The Contemplatives. Some would say “the feelers”.
Some key words: Meditation, solitude, quietude, inward, deeper life, subjective.
Some labels: Mystic, Existentialist, Orthodox, Neo-Orthodox.
Some names: Guyon, Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, St John of the Cross.
Some books: Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.
3. The Conservatives. Some would say “the doers”.
Some key words: Holiness, modesty, KJV, creationism.
Some labels: Independent, fundamentalist.
Some names: David Cloud, John Rice.
Some books: Anything by these authors, Jack Chick tracts and comics, above all the 1611 King James Version.
4. The Socially Conscientious. Some would say “the doers”.
Some key words: Conscience, poverty, hunger, brotherhood, compassion.
Some labels: Social gospel.
Some names: Ron Sider, Mother Theresa, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo.
Some books: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
5. The Charismatics. Some would say “the feelers”.
Some key words: Pentecost, Holy Ghost, power, gifts.
Some labels: Charismatic, Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Third Wave.
Some names: Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Gordon Fee.
Confucius’ problem is a very simple one: Each time he runs into a representative of one of these streams, he is convinced that he has encountered the truth. But this only lasts until he runs into one of the others. Then, like the sheep in Animal Farm, he is swayed by the new rhetoric.
This leaves him with a problem. What should he do with his former allegiance?
Cognitive dissonance is the term used by psychologists to describe the discomfort a person experiences when trying to hold on to two conflicting beliefs at the same time. It is in fact impossible for the human mind to do so, which explains why you or I cannot serve God and Mammon simultaneously. The heart has the capacity for only one overriding allegiance.
This is Confucius’ problem. In fact, it is worse than that. Confucius is trying to hold on to five conflicting beliefs at once. His problem is more than mere dissonance. Confucius feels cognitively blown apart.
You may wish to interrupt me at this stage and ask: Why do these views need to be presented as conflicting ones? Why can they not be integrated? Why can someone not introduce Confucius to the old Indian legend about the blind men and the elephant?
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain, quoth he;
‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
I see, quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a rope!
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
The version above is John Godfrey Saxe’s, and I share it because of the last stanza. Confucius’ problem is not the elephant. It is the blind men. Understanding the connection between the tusk and the tail is not the difficulty. Any sensible person who has a bit of time for exploration and reflection can connect the two. The difficulty arises when, instead of exploring and reflecting, one tries to connect them through the mediation of the second and sixth man in the poem. In fact this is impossible, for how can a rope and spear be the same thing?
This is the problem. The confusion does not lie in the different dimensions of our faith, but in the insistence of our faith’s commentators that their particular analysis of it is the most important one and the exclusive paradigm or interpretive grid for making sense of all the others. Integrating such claims is impossible, for each excludes the others.
There is clearly only one way out of the predicament. Confucius needs to meet the elephant. A personal and unmediated encounter will reveal the truth. There is no other way.
In the first “Simply Organic” post I pointed out that I wished to say something about the fact that we (or some of us) are not a celebrity cult. I did this to an extent with The Last Revival post, I further elaborated on it here and I will do so in the next post. There we will address the obvious question:
WHERE IS THE ELEPHANT?