Archive for May, 2012

The Doors of the Sea – 2

Posted: May 31, 2012 by J in Book review, General

The first half of the book:

This is a book about theodicy: i.e. the vindication of God, and his defence from the accusations of his critics. Hart opens with a flurry of contempt against atheistic exploitation of the Tsunami to serve its cause. But this serves merely to set the scene, to point in the general direction of the real issue, which is the challenge posed to Christian faith by the suffering of the little ones. There is little engagement with these atheist writers: apparently they are scarcely qualified to even enter the ring. Hart is just whetting our appetite.

He then casts about for any truly worthy exponents of atheistic arguments-from-suffering. He finds two: first Voltaire, and then, supremely, Dostoyevsky. If you were suspecting that we might be leaving the Tsunami behind in our pursuit of worthy antagonists, you would be right. In fact the Tsunami warrants barely another mention until the last ten pages of the book. It was, apparently a springboard into the more general theological discussion. Hmm.

Voltaire railed eloquently against the horrors of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. He rejected the deist doctrine of his era that evils such as this were a necessary part of ‘the greater good’, calling it an immoral nonsense. But although Voltaire was sparring with deism – a bastard child of Christian faith and not the thing itself – yet his rebellion and others like it are inspired in part by dimly-remembered elements of the true gospel message. Christians do well to let themselves be searched by these critiques, since, intriguingly, ‘sometimes atheism seems to retain elements of ‘Christianity’ within itself that Christians have all too frequently forgotten’ (p.25).

As evidence of this, Hart surveys ‘Christian’ responses to the Tsunami, and finds them ‘more unsavoury’ than those of the atheists! While he finds these Christian responses mutually incompatible, he detects a common element: ‘each…seemed to wish to believe that there is a divine plan…that accounts for every instance of suffering…in a sort of total sum’ (p.29). He notes their ‘apparent need to produce an apologia for God that precluded the possibility of an absurd or pointless remainder in the order of creation and redemption’ (p.35), a need which allowed no room for important NT themes such as that of the victory of God over evil and death. For Hart, the gospel liberates by teaching us that ‘suffering and death…have no true meaning or purpose at all’ (p.35).

The Doors of the Sea – review

Posted: May 30, 2012 by J in Book review

Over the next few days I’m posting my review of David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, a book inspired by the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

First, let’s deal with the issue of personality. I wouldn’t normally talk about this in a theological book review, but Bentley Hart has a lot of it – personality that is, and he splashes it about pretty freely. You can’t read more than a couple of pages without feeling that you’re getting to know him, that you’re in some sense sharing his company. Some will find that more enjoyable than others.

Hart has a forceful, edgy, ironic manner that seems likely to appeal to young male theology students of the ‘alpha’ type. He takes an obvious delight in demolishing his opponents, and it seems most of the published world falls into this category. He cannot resist exposing the weaknesses or follies of those he interacts with. One feels, while in the company of Bentley Hart, that the world is a very foolish place.

There is something quite modernist about the detached vantage point from which Hart so confidently studies and weighs the merits of the world around him.  Hart knows. In a book dealing with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the reader hopes to find evidence of a bit of human feeling. If we suspect that the matter is being treated as a purely intellectual one, we might feel alienated and even repulsed. And unfortunately, in spite of his protestations of sympathy, Hart never convinces us that he has been touched at the human or emotional level by the tragedy he writes about. He plunges so quickly into combative, didactic mode, we are left with the feeling that something rather obscene is occurring, that the misery of those untold multitudes has already become so much grist for his theological mill. In Hart’s big personality, there is not much sign of compassion or fellow feeling. This is particularly unfortunate in a book on this topic.

Then there is the closely related matter of style. Hart has an impressive facility with words, piling them up with often telling effect. However, he does tend to get carried away with his own eloquence, rarely choosing one word where two will do. It seems he cannot stand to write a simple sentence, everything must be sophisticated with parentheses, adjectival clauses and explanatory asides. The overall effect of these rather baroque convolutions is a floridness that can become a bit wearing. The ‘man-of-letters’ routine starts to feel a bit self-conscious. Hart has been compared to C. S. Lewis, but unlike Lewis he seems to feel that for writing to be important it must be complicated. Lewis was of course the master of plain English speaking; Hart however has clearly learned writing in a different school.

Well, enough about David Bentley Hart, no doubt his mother loves him.

What about his gear?

(If you want to download the whole review, it’s here:  doors of the sea)

Who Am I – revealed

Posted: May 29, 2012 by J in General

The quote is:

For this reason, the atheist who cannot believe for moral reasons does honour, in an elliptical way, to the Christian God, and so must not be ignored. He demands of us not the surrender of our beliefs but a meticulous recollection on our part of what those beliefs are, and a definition of divine love that has at least the moral rigour of principled unbelief. This, it turns out, is no simple thing. For sometimes atheism seems to retain elements of ‘Christianity’ within itself that Christians have all too frequently forgotten.

And the writer is David Bentley Hart, American Eastern Orthodox Theologian, from his book The Doors of the Sea, about suffering and faith. p.25.

I hope to post a review of this interesting book soon.

In my chats with Alan about Christopher Hitchens last week (to see click here) he raised the question of what kind of stance we should have towards athiests, and of potential dangers in apologetic interactions. I fully agreed with Alan’s comments, in fact I see apologetics as largely a distraction from our real business of understanding and speaking the gospel.

However, I do like to interact with the occasional atheist.

My angle on this is very different from that of apologetics. I’ve been wondering how to express this different approach, but then came across someone who put it beautifully for me. Here it is:

For this reason, the atheist who cannot believe for moral reasons does honour, in an elliptical way, to the Christian God, and so must not be ignored. He demands of us not the surrender of our beliefs but a meticulous recollection on our part of what those beliefs are, and a definition of divine love that has at least the moral rigour of principled unbelief. This, it turns out, is no simple thing. For sometimes atheism seems to retain elements of ‘Christianity’ within itself that Christians have all too frequently forgotten.

Who wrote this? (Hint: it wasn’t Christopher Hitchens).

Two conclusions from this study:

1. Peter does not envisage the annihilation and replacement of the creation. He envisages its release and purification by the fires of judgement, similar to its cleansing by the waters of the flood. Peter, like Jesus and Paul, has no cosmic death wish. Wherever the Christian tradition got this from, it wasn’t from Peter.

2. In this passage, Peter aligns his eschatology consciously with that of Jesus and his apostles, esp. Paul, that of the prophets, and with the gospel story itself. At its heart, the gospel has a Saviour whose body is not abandoned to destruction but raised back to life. The tomb was empty! In the rest of the NT, as we’ve seen, an eschatology of restoration is clear.

In fact, Peter’s judgement imagery is very similar to that of other prophets and apostles:

John the Baptist warned that God would ‘gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Matt 3:11).

Jesus spoke in the same terms:

…they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,  42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire…  43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matt. 13).

You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41).

Paul also pictures judgement as a testing or refining fire:

‘the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.’ (1 Cor 3)

John in Revelation sees the demonic hordes being destroyed in the same way: by fire (Rev. 20:9-10).

These are all images of fire bringing judgement. The dark powers are  simply destroyed,  and replaced with God’s kingdom. And on earth there is a division between what is approved and what is not – the same imagery Peter uses in our passage. For Peter, as for the others, judgement plays this discriminating role, revealing the true nature of things. This is possible because, while some things perish, others survive the fire and are even purified.

The heavens and earth will be judged with fire. What will be the end result of this for the creation?

we wait for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (v.13).

This is often taken to mean that the current creation is replaced with something entirely new: complete discontinuity. This would imply the scrapping of all that exists now. Have we uncovered Hitchens’ ‘secret death-wish’ for the world, at last?

Maybe. But this view doesn’t fit well with what Peter has just said about judgement, where the heavens only were destroyed, not the earth.

Nor does a ‘replacement’ model fit the pattern Peter has laid out for the judgement – the pattern of the flood. The flood was a cleansing of the creation, not its replacement.

We’d better take a look at this idea of ‘new heavens and earth.’ What is ‘new’?

‘New’ (kainos) can mean ‘replacement’, as in ‘new covenant’. The old is rendered obsolete and abolished. Or kainos can mean ‘renewed and transformed’ as in ‘See, I am making all things new’, spoken as God heals the world of all its hurts (Rev.21:5).

Replacement or renewal?

To work out Peter’s meaning here, we need to notice that he’s quoting Isaiah 65. This passage describes the renewal of Israel. Israel has been ruined,  but Yhwh will judge their enemies, and bring rejoicing. They will inherit the mountains and valleys of Israel for their flocks. Jerusalem will be transformed into a place of joy. The former distress will not be remembered. This description gives content to the central announcement:

I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth                                  (Isaiah 65:17)

This is the context for Peter’s ‘new heavens and earth’: a context of renewal and transformation of the land through the judgement of the wicked.

Replacement or renewal? Peter has both in view here. In his picture of judgement, the heavenly powers are simply replaced. The destructive forces that govern the creation are ousted by God’s kingdom. Jesus is now Lord of all.  But the earth is healed: it comes out of the fire cleansed, like it did out of the waters of the flood.

Replacement and renewal.

This means that day of the Lord is good news for the creation: not its end, but its liberation, its consummation and perfection. Its oppressors destroyed, its pains  healed. That’s why Peter can imagine believers looking forward eagerly to this, ‘waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God’ (v.12). On that day God’s people, and the whole groaning creation, will be finally found ‘at peace’ (v.14).

Tomorrow: conclusions – what is Peter really saying?

Now we need to consider Peter’s description of the destruction caused by fire.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed (v.10).

Peter structures his description of the day  in classic Hebrew style: the heavens and the earth.

First the heavens: they will pass away, the stoicheia being dissolved with burning.

What are these stoicheia, ‘elements?

We’re not talking about the elements on the periodic table, folks. First, we should notice that in the heaven/earth dichotomy, the stoicheia belong in the heavens section.

The heavens will pass away…, the elements burning…
and the earth… will be found.’

Reading the grammar and the idiom, the break comes with the ‘kai ge‘ (‘and the earth). The stoicheia are discussed before the earth is in view.

For the apostle Paul, the stoicheia are the heavenly powers of this age that enslave men (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:8 etc). Peter is familiar with Paul’s letters, and considers his teaching in this chapter to be in close agreement with Paul’s on the same topic (3:15, 2). So we must consider Paul’s meaning for stoicheia as a likely contender here. Elsewhere, in the Septuagint’s Book of Wisdom the stoicheia are cosmic energies or elements that structure creation, such as fire, water, air, earth.

Peter has explained how the flood destroyed the world order on earth (cosmos). Now he sees fire doing the same thing in the heavens. Most likely he is thinking at once of the heavenly bodies which rule over the earth (cf. Gen. 1) and of the heavenly powers which they metaphorically stand for, the demonic forces that rule over mankind. It’s not the destruction of the periodic table (welcome as that may be to some students!) It’s these cosmic powers that will be destroyed with fire.

What will be happening meanwhile on earth? “The earth and everything that is done on it will be found”. ‘Found’ in the sense of ‘discovered’. This is a neutral idea: things on earth, whether good or bad, will be seen for what they are on that day. The saints, for example, will be ‘found’ spotless and at peace (v.14).

He then repeats his distinctive description of fire in the heavens, once again including the stoicheia here:

at the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the stoicheia will be burned up with fire. (v.10)

Peter describes the judgement in the heavens quite differently from that on earth. The heavens and the stoicheia there will be burned and pass away. The earth however will be exposed by a discriminating judgement, where the evil is distinguished from the good, and destroyed.

Tomorrow: How new are the ‘new heavens and new earth’?

The flood was the pattern for God’s judgement, the world order perishing while the earth itself was cleansed.

The heavens and earth as they are now are being held for a future judgement like that of the flood – but this time by fire. When that fire comes it will mean ‘the judgement and destruction of the godless’ (3:7). As with the flood, the creation is not said to be destroyed, it is rather the world order of wicked mankind that will perish.

Now comes is the crucial bit, often ignored: Peter explains that the fire is ordained by the same creative word that spoke the creation into being (v.7). In other words, the same plan God was prosecuting in the creation, he is still following at the last judgement. The judgement is the completion of God’s creation purpose, not its abandonment. The creation will come through the fires of judgement, just as it did through the waters of judgement long ago, and it will emerge new, cleansed once and for all – evil destroyed, righteousness established. “We await a new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (v.13).

If the original creative act is God’s first word about his creation, then the judgement is his last word about it. And it is the same word: let it be! Let it exist in a state of blessing. God will send the fires of judgement because he wants his creation to live. “By that same word the heavens and earth that now are, are reserved for fire…” (v.7)

Tomorrow: what exactly does the fire do?

Peter and the pattern for judgement

Posted: May 16, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

Isn’t Peter expressing a kind of cosmic death-wish in 2 Peter 3? A few preliminary considerations to guide our study:

1. we need to interpret this passage in context of the whole letter. It’s usually read on its own.

2. Peter takes the trouble to point out that his teaching about the future is the same as that of the prophets and of Jesus and his apostles (3:2,15) – he is not proposing a new or rival doctrine. In view of this we need to find a reading of this passage that coheres with the eschatology (future expectations) of the rest of the NT. This passage has too often been interpreted in isolation.

SO, what’s the argument in 2 Peter?

It’s very eschatological: 2 Peter writes of the ‘coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ which will mean the destruction of the wicked (2:3) and ‘entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ for believers (1:11).

Chapter 3 deals with an objection to that eschatological scheme. Some scoffers say, ‘this idea of a last judgement goes against the nature of things: since the beginning of creation everything continues the same, there’s no fundamental break in the cycles of life. Cataclysmic interruption? – the facts of history deny it.’

To counter this, what does Peter need to do? He needs to show that there can and has been this sort of change in the created order.

Peter’s exhibit A for cataclysmic change in the created order is the flood. The flood was just such a massive interruption: a whole generation of humanity wiped out, the earth renewed, a fresh start for the creation (including mankind). There is precedent in history for the sort of universal interruption Peter is speaking of. The flood effectively counters the argument from history of the gainsayers.

Peter builds the flood in tightly into his argument about the last judgement. It becomes the pattern for the whole event. What pattern is that?

First the earth was brought up out of water by God’s word (3:5). Then by his word he reversed the process, submerging the earth under water again: an ‘uncreation’. The ‘cosmos’ or order of things as it then was, ‘was destroyed’ (v.6). The earth is not said to perish, but rather the world order, the order established by wicked mankind. As for the earth, it experiences a second dunking, and comes up out of the water again, cleansed.

That’s the pattern for judgement: the flood.

Tomorrow: how the day of the Lord follows that pattern

2 Peter 3 is often cited as a locus classicus for the doctrine of cosmic annihilation. Doesn’t Peter say that the whole creation will be destroyed in fire and replaced with a new one?

Consider Peter’s description of ‘the day of the Lord’.

He’s answering the objection, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’ Why should we believe that the Lord Jesus will return? It seems like everything has gone on as it is since the start of creation. The world seems to be pretty durable, people come and go, but the world just goes on and on the same.

People who talk like that, says Peter, forget about the flood. The world was brought up out of the waters by the word of God, but by those same waters, it was submerged once again – an uncreation.

And now, by the same word, the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be discovered (v.10)

This will be

the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire…(v.12)

In view of this coming cataclysm, we look ahead to another world:

…we wait for new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (v.13)

Peter might not have a personal death wish, but this would appear to be a classic example the kind of cosmic death wish, the desire ‘for this poor world to be over’ of which Christopher Hitchens accused us Christians, summing it up with ‘Let this be gone!’  (see previous ‘deathwish’ posts).

Isn’t this Peter’s vote of no confidence in the creation? His warning not to invest in it? That’s how I’ve often heard this passage used: ‘What’s the point of caring for the creation, doesn’t Peter say it’s all going to burn?’ And you don’t want to spend too much of your time rearranging the deck-chairs, when you’re on the Titanic.

Yes friends, for cosmic annihilationists, this text is the biggy. And there’s no denying it’s a difficult text to interpret. Hasty, superficial readings will not come up with the goods here. Peter’s teaching needs and repays careful reading. We’re going to look into it over a few posts. It’s so unique it deserves the time.

Tomorrow: what was Peter really saying?