God is good, really

God is goodA favourite saying among evangelical Christians – indeed, I saw it in my Facebook feed this morning – is “God is good all the time!”.

I agree wholeheartedly with this saying. But I suspect it may be misunderstood and/or misused by many. In particular, there are two major ways in which I see it misused, or used carelessly. Let’s unpack them a bit, shall we?

First, we sometimes hear this saying shared with those who are suffering some dire circumstance or grieving a painful loss. I’m sure it’s meant as an encouragement. I suppose the idea is that the suffering brother or sister needs to be reminded of God’s goodness lest they should come to doubt it because of what has befallen them.

The difficulty with this is that there’s a great danger that it will be understood as meaning “This terrible thing that has happened to you is actually a manifestation of God’s goodness in a way that you just don’t understand yet”. While that may, theoretically, be true, I’d suggest that it might well be the last thing a suffering person needs to hear at a time of tragedy. In fact, it might well produce the exact opposite of its intended effect by provoking a reaction of “If that’s your idea of God’s goodness, I don’t want to know your God!”

Second, this saying is sometimes used as a way to sweep aside biblical portrayals of God that are problematic. We believe that God is good; we read in the Old Testament that God commanded the slaughter of innocent women and children, the enslavement of entire cities and/or forced intercourse with captured virgins; and we wonder what to do with this troublesome information. Faced with this difficulty, we seek reassurance by telling ourselves, “God is good all the time!” Continue reading

Eternal Word vs. written word

BibleA few days ago I wrote about how strict biblical inerrancy is not, in my opinion, compatible with believing that Jesus is the full expression of the unchanging God.

Unsurprisingly, that post generated quite a bit of interest… and no small amount of pushback. Which, since I clearly have masochistic tendencies, prompts me to write more on the subject today.

There were two basic premises underlying my previous post: first, that Jesus takes precedence over the Bible; and second, that allowing Jesus to take precedence over the Bible forces us to acknowledge that the Bible is not inerrant.

One assertion frequently made by inerrantists in defence of their position is that the “Word” referred to in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel (Greek logos, meaning “structuring principle” or “logic”) is both Jesus and the written word, i.e. the Bible. In other words, or so their argument goes, to attack the inerrancy of the Bible is to attack the very person of Jesus. I’d like to briefly refute that assertion.

First, verse 14 of John 1 tells us, “The Word became flesh, and lived among us”. To me, it defies credulity to try to infer that this basically means that the Bible became flesh – that what came to us in the Incarnation was essentially a walking library. (Quite apart from the obvious fact that, since the canon of scripture was not formed until the fourth century, there was no pre-existent Bible to take on flesh.) Continue reading

Jesus or inerrancy: take your pick

Bible“Inerrancy” is a word you may not actually hear spoken all that often in evangelical churches. But make no mistake: the belief that scripture is and must be without error underpins an awful lot of evangelical theology and lies not far beneath the surface in many churches.

While there’s no universal agreement on precisely what is meant by biblical inerrancy, there is at least one documented explanation in the form of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Since my purpose here is not to examine the whole notion of inerrancy, I won’t bother to reproduce the whole thing (if you’re interested, you can read it here). But I would like to quote the statement’s final two points:

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

In case you find their wording obscure, allow me to translate these two points into simple language: the Bible contains absolutely nothing that is mistaken; and either the whole Bible is absolutely true, or none of it is at all reliable. That’s right, folks: it’s an all or nothing deal.

I used to believe in the inerrancy of scripture, but I don’t any more. For me, it’s really important not to. The reason? Well, to put it bluntly, I think you can believe either in the inerrancy of scripture or in the God fully revealed by Jesus, but not both.

Let me try to explain. Continue reading

Book review: Confessions of a Bible Thumper by Michael Camp

Bible ThumperToday I have the pleasure of reviewing Michael Camp’s book Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith, published in 2012.

Full disclosure: the author very kindly sent me a copy of his book on the understanding that I would review it once I’d read it. I’ve tried not to let that bias my review at all. (In other words, the only bias you should see here is my own, not influenced by the fact that I received this book for free.)

In short, Confessions of a Bible Thumper is a fairly detailed account of how the author journeyed from being a fairly typical 1970s fundamentalist evangelical to being what might nowadays be called a more progressive believer, by which I mean one who is more focused on love and freedom in Christ than on the letter of doctrine.

There’s only one thing I didn’t care for too much about the book, and it’s really a minor point and more a matter of personal preference than anything else, so let’s get that out of the way first. The book narrates a series of semi-fictional theological conversations the author has with friends over food and drinks one evening. I say semi-fictional because I assume these conversations are stitched together from a patchwork of actual conversations that took place over a period of time. While this provides a useful framework on which to hang the very large amount of theological material that’s covered, I perrsonally found this way of presenting the material a little artificial; my own preference would have been simply to see the author either lay out his theological arguments on their own or to narrate his personal journey of spiritual and theological growth without situating it in a semi-fictional conversation. However, I recognise that I’m speaking here from my own preferred learning style. Those who find it easier to absorb information in a more narrative style may well find Michael’s approach here works very well for them. Continue reading

On destiny and freedom

Rail tracksA few days ago I wrote about how, because God is love and love does not coerce, I believe that God’s hands-on involvement in running the world is much less than many of us would like to think. Today I’d like to take this thought a little further.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variety of message or teaching along the following lines: “God has a predestined plan for your life.” This is usually based on a few isolated texts of scripture, for example Psalm 139:16: “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

I used to lap up this kind of teaching. But now I’ve come to see it as Christian determinism, pure and simple. Let me show you why.

The logic is very straightforward: if God is so deterministic that he literally plans every day of our lives down to the last detail, then we are forced to conclude one of two things:

1. Either God also plans every terrible accident, disaster, disease and cause of suffering that befalls humanity…

2. … or God must have some reason for protecting certain people from disaster while allowing others to suffer.

Either way, the outcome is not pretty: either God is a monster who intentionally and deliberately causes suffering, or he is biased and has favourites. Continue reading

Divine randomness

Random NumbersI love the city of Paris.

Paris is my favourite city in the world (which, since I haven’t visited all that much of the world, is probably a less spectacular claim than it sounds). I first went there when I was 16 years old, and immediately fell in love with it. Since then, I must have visited it somewhere approaching thirty times, and I never tire of it. But there are two particular particular things that have happened to me in Paris that will stay with me forever.

The first: I was in Paris with my wife and kids one weekend around ten years ago. We’d been facing some major life decisions, and just as we thought we’d worked out a way forward, things changed very abruptly and unexpectedly, and we were plunged back into uncertainty. As we walked around the city, taking in its familiar landmarks, our minds were full of questions.

I knew that my dad was also going to be in Paris that weekend. He was on a short coach-and-hotel tour. We’d had no contact and made no plans to meet up, since we knew we’d be busy and he had his own pre-programmed itinerary to follow.

So imagine my surprise when, as we walked round a corner onto the Pont d’Iéna under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, we heard a honking of horns and a knocking on glass and we looked up to see my dad waving to us from the window of a coach! The coach that was taking him on his package tour happened to have stopped at some traffic lights right by where we were walking.

I’m no statistician, but I know that the chances of us being in the exact same place at the same time in a city of three million people are pretty slim. It was one of those surreal moments of bizarre coincidence that happen to us all from time to time. We took it as a sign that, in all our uncertainty, God knew exactly where we were.

The second: my wife and I were in Paris for a long weekend with some friends about eighteen months ago. We’d all spent a fairly intense three days together, and on the Sunday afternoon decided to split off and have some down time. My wife and I were strolling at a leisurely pace through the Marais quarter when we happened upon an estate agent’s window. Just for fun, we decided to stop for a moment and look at property prices. As we were marvelling (and drooling) at some of the properties on offer, a voice behind us said “Bonjour!”, and we turned round to find a dear friend whom we had known very well when we were living in Normandy a few years earlier. She was on her way to a meeting nearby and had just happened to spot us as she hurried along the street. Had we not stopped for a moment at the estate agent’s window, she would doubtless have missed us.

Same city, two different occasions, two bizarrely improbable coincidences. Continue reading

Projecting onto God

Greek godIt has come to my understanding that how we perceive others is often in large part a function of our own internal state rather than a reflection of objective reality.

Let me give you an example to flesh this out.

Sometimes I’ll ask my wife “What’s the matter?” and she’ll give me a puzzled look and answer, “Nothing, why?” This has at times been a source of frustration for her in the past, because through my persistent asking “What’s the matter?”, I’ve given her the impression that there must be something wrong when, in fact, nothing was wrong at all. I’m gradually learning to be more careful about asking this kind of question; or, rather, to take a step back and think about what’s going on before I ask it.

What is usually going on here?

Often, what’s actually going on at such times is that I am, for some reason or other, in a state of inner discontent which I then unconsciously project onto my wife. Perhaps I’m feeling anxious, insecure, angry or fearful about something. I’m probably not consciously aware that this is how I’m feeling. But because it’s what’s going on deep inside, I look for some external object on which to fix my anxiety, insecurity, anger or fear. And the nearest external object usually happens to be my wife.

To put it simply, if you’re often angry, you tend to expect others to be angry too; if you’re often fearful, you tend to see others as potential sources of fear; and so on. Continue reading