The Blog for 1/4/04 - 1/10/04
Reflection: The Image of God and Human Nature
Developing a Biblical Worldview in 2004, Part 7 out of 11
Posted at 9:45 p.m. on Saturday, January 10, 2004
In my last post in this series I examined the image of God as revealed in Genesis 1:26-27. There God creates humankind in his image as "male and female." From this we come to understand that God is both personal and transcendent, a God whom we know truly and intimately, but who is also mysterious and can't be put in a neat little box, to use C.S. Lewis's apt image.
The creation of humankind as male and female also helps to shape our fundamental understanding of ourselves in several key ways.
First, we human beings bear a unique resemblance to God and are therefore extraordinarily valuable within creation. The dignity of each human life rests in part upon our uniqueness as bearers of the divine image. Of course this component of the biblical worldview powerfully impacts the way we think and live, whether it motivates us to seek justice for oppressed peoples or to defend the life of unborn human beings. The distinctive worth of human life means that, though we care about all creatures in God's creation, we do not follow those who equate the worth of human and animal life. Genesis 1:26-27 doesn't provide a free pass to PETA.
Second, that God created humankind as male and female shows us that maleness and femaleness are not merely cultural accidents that need to be ignored or corrected, but something essential to human nature. Efforts to obliterate the distinctions between men and women, as, for instance, in many arguments for gay marriage, stumble upon this building block of the biblical worldview.
Third, both male and female are essential to human community. Both share in the divine image. Both share together in the divine command to rule over creation (Gen 1:28). This implies a critique of those who would exclude one gender, either male or female, from full participation in human society. Sexism, whether from the extreme right or the extreme left, doesn't reflect the biblical worldview. Male and female are created to live and work as complementary partners.
Fourth, the creation of humankind as male and female suggests that we are by nature communal beings. God's image, though present in each individual, is most fully seen when we live in community together: in family, church, neighborhood, and friendship. We were not meant to live alone, as Scripture makes even clearer in Genesis 2.
From these four essential aspects of our nature, Christians make widely varied applications. It's well worth debating, for example, how Genesis 1:26-27 ought impact our understanding of the relationship between men and women in church and family. But at least this debate can be founded on the bedrock of a biblical understanding of human life. Many secular agendas, such as those that nullify the distinctions between male and female or equate human and animal life, are fundamentally inconsistent with the biblical view of life.
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Reflection: Is Dean's View of Christianity Correct?
Posted at 10:57 p.m. on Friday, January 9, 2004
Poor Howard Dean! At first he tries to keep his religion a private matter and is blasted for being irreligious. Then he tries to speak out concerning his religious convictions and gets blasted for saying things that religious people don't like. It seems that he's damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. (Well, perhaps "damned" isn't a good choice of words here!)
Most of the furor over Dean's most recent gaffe has focused on his view that homosexuality is genetic and therefore God created gay people as gay. The problems with his logic are legion, and I'm not going to take them on right now. (See my next few posts in the "Biblical Worldview" series, coming tomorrow and in the days ahead.)
Rather, I'd like to focus on a part of Dean's statement that hasn't received much attention. In his interview with the Washington Post, Dean said, "My view of Christianity . . . is that the hallmark of being a Christian is to reach out to people who have been left behind." Is this right? Is it the hallmark of being a Christian to reach out to people who have been left behind?
It's seems terribly ironic to me that Dean actually uses the phrase "left behind" in this statement, given the extraordinary popularity of the Left Behind series of end-time novels. But I expect that the good doctor probably didn't realize how clever he sounds. And I'm quite sure that he isn't talking about reaching out to people who are left behind on earth after the Rapture takes the saints to heaven.
More seriously, however, at first glance Howard Dean's characterization of Christianity seems to be on target. After all, Jesus came as the Son of Man "to seek out and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). He pictures God as the Good Shepherd who leaves the flock to search for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). So if Jesus is our model and teacher, then shouldn't Christians in fact reach out to people who have been left behind?
Perhaps. But I find the difference between Jesus' language and Howard Dean's language quite interesting. According to Jesus, the object of seeking and saving is the one who is lost. According to Dean, the object of outreach is the one who has been left behind. What's the difference? In the biblical view, the lost got themselves lost. The sheep wandered off. Israel became lost through disobedience to the Lord. Lostness is a result of error, of bad choices. In Dean's view, those needing help are victims of the insensitivity of others. They are left behind by people who didn't care enough to bring them along. Left-behind-ness is a category of victimization.
This distinction is terribly important because it relates to the fundamental human problem and need. Am I a victim of the wrong doings of others? Or am I primarily responsible for the mess I'm in? Am I lost because I wandered off? Or have I been left behind because others were unkind to me? Is the fault mine? Or are others to blame for my condition?
Let me be very clear at this point in saying that many human beings are genuine victims of injustice who need God's help as it is mediated through Christians. Children in Africa born with AIDS, fatherless families in Iraq, dying people in Calcutta, and countless others are suffering because of the evils done to them. They are genuine victims who need to experience divine deliverance.
But even these people, as deserving as they are of our loving outreach, face a deeper and more pervasive problem in their lives, the problem of their lostness, the problem that comes as a result of their sin. And when it comes to sin, we haven't been left behind at all. We've wandered away on our own accord and are lost because of poor choices we've made. The good news is that God cares for people like us, that Jesus came to seek and to save people just like us - including us.
As Christians we do indeed reach out in Christ's name to those who have been left behind, to genuine victims of human injustice. No question about it. So Howard Dean is partly right. But he doesn't acknowledge an even deeper truth about Christianity, that it's the business of reaching out to the lost and bringing them home to God. That's why Jesus came, and that's why he sent his disciples out into the world.
But in order for the lost to respond to their Savior, they need to acknowledge that they are in fact lost, that they have wandered away from God's fold, and that they need a Savior. Left behind victims can have a hard time recognizing this.
Maybe I'm quibbling over words here. After all, Howard Dean hasn't shown himself to be a particularly adept theologian. But the question of the whether we are fundamentally lost or merely left behind is a huge one. And it's one I'll address in Part 8 of my ongoing series, "Developing a Biblical Worldview in 2004." So stay tuned . . . .
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Reflection: Dual Citizenship
Posted at 10:12 p.m. on Thursday, January 8, 2004
[Note: Five further installments in my "Developing a Biblical Worldview" are forthcoming. But I'll often pause on Thursdays to include a reflection on a passage of Scripture.]
In a major election year, we are especially reminded of our citizenship in the United States of America. Even when political candidates distress us and embarrass themselves, we can celebrate the freedom they have to do so, not to mention our freedom not to vote for them as we support their opponents.
But, as much as American citizenship is a treasure, we Christians must continually remember that we hold dual citizenship, and that our primary citizenship lies beyond this world.
In writing to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul notes, "But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil 3:20). This is the only place in the New Testament where the word "citizenship" ( politeuma in Greek) appears. And it's no accident that it shows up in a letter to the Philippians. Philippi, a major city in Macedonia at the top of the Aegean Sea, had a peculiar history. In the century before Christ, several major battles were fought near Philippi, and afterwards many Roman soldiers retired in this city. Thus by the time Paul wrote to the Philippians (late 50's A.D.), many who lived in Philippi were citizens both of Rome and of their hometown. Though loyal to Philippi itself, their fundamental allegiance lay elsewhere.
So it is with those of us who are Christians, Paul says. We're just like the folk in Philippi who have dual citizenship. And our primary citizenship is in heaven, even as theirs is in Rome. We are, above all, citizens of God's kingdom. Of course this idea got the early Christians into a mess of trouble, because the Roman Empire didn't take kindly to those who claimed to be citizens of another kingdom. But Paul and his spiritual kin hung on firmly to the fact of their heavenly citizenship.
How does this impact us? The context in Philippians 3 makes it clear that as citizens of heaven we won't be dominated by earthly passions (v. 19) as we look forward to the time when God's kingdom is fully established (v. 21). We live in this world with one eye focused on the Lord and his future, even as we live energetically in the present. ( Matter matters , remember?)
In an election season it's especially important for us to remember where our primary citizenship lies. Partisanship runs rampant in this time, and sometimes believers seem to forget that they are Christians before they are Republicans or Democrats or whatever. We can be so wrapped up in supporting our candidates that we can't stand back and critique their errors from a biblical perspective. Yet heavenly citizenship helps us to have that perspective. It gives us a measure of distance from this world, from which we can evaluate earthly politics in light of heaven.
Not too long ago, two men from my church were running for public office, one as a Democrat and the other as a Republican. One of these men found himself in a party gathering where people were blasting the character of the other man. So what did he do? Join in the bashing? Remain silent? No, he spoke up. "John and I have very little in common politically, you know that. But we mustn't impugn his character. I know him to be a man of honor, wrong about many things, yes, but a decent man. Let's keep our criticisms focused on the issues, and not malign good people." Here was a candidate - a committed partisan - who lived first as a citizen of heaven.
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Rant: A Sad Decline
Posted at 8:10 a.m. on Thursday, January 8, 2004
I used to eat all the time at Carl's Jr. Their BBQ chicken sandwich was a staple of my diet for years. Plus I liked the fact that Carl's was a family restaurant, established by a man -- Carl Karcher -- with high moral, Christian values.
Now the spokesman for Carl's Jr. is none other than Hugh Hefner, whose recent ads for the fast food establishment confuse beautiful women with hamburgers. What a sad decline, from high moral ground to about as low as you can go in pop culture.
For an inciteful analysis of what's going on in this sorry affair, see the excellent piece by Al Mohler in his daily blog.
Reflection: Developing a Biblical Worldview in 2004, Part 6
The Image of God and the Divine Nature
Posted at 9:45 p.m. on Wednesday, January 7, 2004
So far our search for a biblical worldview has led us to Genesis 1, from which we have derived two essential components of this worldview:
1. There is one, sovereign, transcendent, all-powerful God who created all things.
2. Because God created the heavens and the earth, and created them good, therefore matter matters.
Let's build upon this foundation by pressing on in Genesis 1. Verses 26-27 read: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . .So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.'" The God who created all things chose to make one aspect of creation reflect his own nature in a unique way. Thus, from the image of God stamped upon humankind we learn vital truths both about God and also about ourselves.
What do we learn about God? First, we learn that God is personal, not merely a force or power in the universe. It's terribly common these days to hear people speak of divinity in these impersonal ways, but they fail to do justice to the personal God of Scripture.
Second, we learn that God is neither exclusively male nor exclusively female. In the ancient world surrounding the Israelites, gods were either male or female. Fertility cults often explained life in terms of the sexual exploits of the gods and worshipped by imitating these exploits. But the Bible reveals a stunningly different picture of God, one in which God transcends human gender with an image that is both male and female.
To this day, many people attempt to assign gender to God. Some Christians, noting correctly the predominance of male images for God in the Bible (king, father, etc.), have incorrectly turned God into an supernatural male, neglecting the truth of God's image in Genesis 1, not to mention biblical passages that use female imagery for God. On the other hand, it is increasingly popular these days to resurrect the worship of the goddess. The bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, reads at times like an extensive apology for the goddess cult and the fertility rites associated with it. (See my critique of The Da Vinci Code.)
In fact, the God of Scripture, whom we are taught to address as King and Father, is neither essentially male nor female. God is both "the Rock who had fathered" Israel and "the God who had given [them] birth" (Deut 31:18, NLT). God is our Heavenly Father who comforts us like a mother (Isa 66:13) and rejoices over us like a woman who found her lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).
In the end, we are left with a God who is revealed to us in Scripture, yet who is also mysterious. The God whose image is both male and female is a personal God, not an it or a thing. Yet that personal God is not a man or a woman, but a transcendent being whose nature incorporates both maleness and femaleness. A biblical worldview, therefore, includes a God who is personal, transcendent, and mysterious - yet made known to us through Scripture.
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Reflection: Developing a Biblical Worldview in 2004, Part 5
Posted at 10:00 p.m., January 6, 2004
In Part 4 of "Developing a Biblical Worldview" I proposed that we start at the beginning - in Genesis 1, at the beginning of the Bible, at the beginning of time. We examined the first words of Genesis, "In the beginning God created," deriving from this the text the basis of a biblical worldview, in which one God reigns supreme, transcending creation.
Now let's continue on in Genesis 1: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (1:1). Does the addition of a few more words, "the heavens and the earth" impact our worldview significantly? Yes, indeed it does. It tells us that matter matters.
In the biblical worldview, matter matters, not only as neutral stuff in which good things happen, but as something that is good because it comes from God. Six times in Genesis 1 God sees that his creation is good. In fact, he concludes by noting that it is "very good" (Gen 1:25).
Why is this important for our worldview? Because it teaches us to value this life and this world as God's good creation. It explains why God seeks to redeem, not only human souls, but the whole creation (Rom 8:18-25). Ultimately it helps us to make sense of the Incarnation, the Word of God made flesh in Jesus (John 1:14).
For ages Christians have fought against the tendency to devalue this world. In the second and third centuries, orthodox believers defended the biblical worldview against the widely popular heresy known as Gnosticism. This philosophy, born out of Greek dualism, saw spirit as good and matter as evil. Gnostics believed that the divine spark resided within each person, who could be saved from material incarceration by the knowledge (in Greek, gnosis) of his or her essential divinity. Much of New Age philosophy is simply a modern rehash of ancient Gnosticism. Gnostics denied the goodness of creation, the reality of the Incarnation, and the eternal value of this world. The orthodox church stood its ground, however, ultimately prevailing against the Gnostic degradation of the goodness of creation.
If we believe that matter matters, we'll live differently than if we believe that matter is valueless or even evil. For one thing, we'll care about the world God created and entrusted to us. For another, we'll embrace the biblical concern for justice in this life, and not only seek to save souls for the afterlife, however important this may be. Moreover, we'll also be set free to enjoy this creation, though within the guidelines revealed by God. Finally, we'll look forward to the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21:1), orienting our hope to the renewal of creation that is yet to come.
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Reflection: Developing a Biblical Worldview in 2004, Part 4
Let's Start at the Beginning
Posted at 10:06 p.m., January 5, 2004
If we want to develop a biblical worldview, where do we begin? I suggest we take a clue from Maria in The Sound of Music, who sings: "Let's start at the beginning, a very good place to start."
"In the beginning God created . . . ." So begins the Bible, at the beginning, or one might say, the Beginning. We're talking about the theological Big Bang, the start of all things. So what do we learn from the first five words (four in Hebrew) of the Bible?
First, everything starts with God. God is, in the classic philosophical phrase, the First Mover. All of life, including both material and spiritual reality, begins with the One identified in Hebrew as elohim.
Implication: God is Sovereign. God is ultimately in charge. To bring this down to a personal level, God is (or should be) sovereign over my life.
Second, the God who creates "in the beginning" was not created by something else. God transcends time and history. God simply is. (Later on God will reveal his name as Yahweh, which is a form of the verb "to be.")
Implication: God is not a figment of our imagination. We don't get to make up God according to our preferences. God's existence transcends everything, including our attempts to invent him.
Third, God is unitary. Though the Hebrew word elohim is plural in form, it was understood to have a singular referent, the one true God. This is seen clearly in the fact that the verb "created" is singular in Hebrew: one God and only one God created. Here the Hebrew worldview diverged starkly from every other option in the ancient world. Monotheism was peculiar; polytheism was the norm for all ancient societies. Yet the Bible reveals that there is one and only one true God.
Implication: Whereas in the ancient world the battle line was drawn between monotheism and polytheism, today things are much more confusing. Some will tell you there is no God. Others claim to believe in a god, but a god of their own making. Still others advocate theoretical theism, but live as if God made little difference. This can even be true of Christians. One of the most pervasive assumptions of contemporary culture is that God, if there is a God at all, is more or less absent from real life. Thus it's up to us to determine our own fate and to define our own identities. In The Sound of Music, Maria captures the modern ethos perfectly in her song "I Have Confidence." In the end she sings, "I have confidence in confidence alone, besides which you can see I have confidence in me." There it is, our culture's statement of faith. (Though perhaps the postmodern refrain would be "I lack confidence in confidence alone, besides which you can see I lack confidence in me.")
But there's a sad irony here. The real Maria von Trapp began life as an atheist who had confidence in herself alone. But then she had a life-changing encounter with God. She spent the rest of her life as a passionate Christian, even doing missionary work later in life. The picture of Maria in The Sound of Music – which happens to be one of my favorite movies – is an utterly secularized one, a picture stripped of what the real Maria considered to be the most important thing in life: God.
Here is the beginning of a genuine biblical worldview: God.
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Reflection: Developing a Biblical Worldview in 2004, Part 3
The Benefits of a Biblical Worldview
Posted at 10:32 a.m., January 5, 2004
So, you might wonder, why would anyone want to have a biblical worldview? After all, the Bible was written a long time ago, when people saw the world in pre-scientific terms. Why would we want to think in terms that seem so antique?
The best reason for adopting a biblical worldview is that it reflects the truth about what is. If we believe in a Sovereign God, for example, our belief system reflects reality. (Or at least it does to the extent that we have the ability to conceive of God truthfully.)
But there's a very practical reason for adopting a biblical worldview, one that has appeal even in this pragmatic generation. To put it simply, if you have a biblical worldview, you will live better. You'll tend to make better choices. And you won't embarrass yourself by being blown around by the latest trend or fad.
And you won't marry your childhood friend in Las Vegas, only to annul your marriage a few hours later. As you probably know by now, that's what Britney Spears did to usher in the new year. Why did she do such a silly thing - as if we should expect more from Ms. Spears? Some press reports say it was all a joke; others insist that she was drunk. But the strangest report of all comes from The Jerusalem Post. This paper suggests that Britney married because she has become a devotee of the Kabbala, a form of classic Jewish mysticism. The Kabbala encourages marriage, and this, we are told, may be what led Britney to marry. Of course the Kabbala doesn't encourage immediate annulment, so its influence upon Britney may not be terribly deep at this point.
Okay, this is all good for a laugh, but a sad laugh. Like it or not, Britney represents millions of people in our day who live rootless, confused, and ultimately silly lives. She is the classic seeker, looking hither and yon, taking a bit of this and a bit of that, yet ending up with nothing trustworthy to guide her life. If reports are true that Britney has actually visited the Kabbala Center in Los Angeles, it reveals her longing for something deeper, something truer, something significant - and something that would keep her from making a fool of herself.
I believe that what Britney really seeks is the God who is already seeking her. Knowing this God and adopting a worldview in which he is the primary being would help her to do more than stop embarrassing herself. It would give her the meaning, purpose, and moral framework that makes life worth living: her life, my life, and your life. The more we embrace a biblical worldview, the more we will experience what the Bible calls eternal life: the rich life of the future beginning even now.
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Reflection: Developing a Biblical Worldview Series
Posted at 12:31 p.m., January 4, 2004
My series will continue tomorrow. In the meanwhile, check out Joe Carter's piece on the rationality of belief in God at the Evangelical Outpost.
Resource: USA Today Cover Story on Blogging.
Posted at 12:25 p.m., January 4, 2004
Reflection for a Sunday: Caught in the Rat Races?
Posted at 12:13 p.m., January 4, 2004
Years ago I had a friend named Robert. He was an associate pastor in a large church and a very eligible bachelor. But he had a hard time settling down in a relationship and tended to flit from one woman to the next. One day while Robert was busy, a couple of his friends played a trick on him. Without telling him what they were doing, they attached one of those license plate frames to Robert's car. It read, "So Many Women . . . So Little Time." For weeks Pastor Robert drove around, completely unaware of the statement his car made to those who were behind him on the road. Finally his boss, the church's senior pastor, saw the license plate frame. Angrily, he told Robert that this was inappropriate for a pastor's car.
If I were to put such a frame around my license plate, it wouldn't read "So Many Women . . . So Little Time." I love one woman and I plan to stick with her the rest of my life, thank you very much. In truth, my frame could read, "Only One Woman . . . But Still So Little Time!" On the other hand, I might attach a frame that read, "So Many Races . . . So Little Time." Can you relate? It's commonplace to say that life is a rat-race, but in reality it's much worse than that. Life is a whole bunch of competing rat races, and we're supposed to run in them all simultaneously.
So what's a person to do? According to the third chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians, the answer is simple: Invest yourself in the race that matters most. We should followPaul's own example when he says, "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:13b-14). Perhaps in our case we should forget, not only what lies behind, but also what lies alongside us - all of the other races - in order to put our whole energy into the one race that is most important of all.
The entry above is an excerpt from my sermon of January 4, 2004. For the whole sermon, click here.
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