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Come and See

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November 8, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity
Come and See

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. You can read more about what we believe here.

The 10th Chapter of Acts recounts the events surrounding the conversion of the first gentile Christians—those in the household of the Roman Centurian Cornelius. As an artist and a naturalist, I have always been delighted by Peter’s vision of the sheet with commingled clean and unclean animals. But my reaction to the story as a follower of Christ is somewhat more complex: it has by turns thrilled, comforted and convicted me, for at various times in my life I have been on both sides of what was actually a double-conversion—of Cornelius the pagan turning to Jesus, and of Peter the Jewish Christian also turning towards Jesus, but away from his surety in who was “in” and who was “out” of the Kingdom of God. In the context of the BioLogos project, the image of Peter being led reluctantly along the Lord’s path offers a corrective to the way many—particularly Dr. Al Mohler—have joined the debate over the compatibility of science and faith.

The visions Peter saw of the sheet were, prior to any revelation that he was being sent to a gentile household, offensive to his sense of purity as a devout Jew who respected and loved the Law. Add to this that Cornelius was not just a gentile, but a military commander in the hated occupying forces of Imperial Rome. Though Peter came to understand that the vision meant he was to make no a priori judgments about who could and could not be saved by the grace of Jesus, the command from the Lord to “Get up, Peter. Kill, and eat” was an affront to his identity and was in direct contradiction to what he believed set him and the other Christians apart from the rest of humanity in addition to their confession of Jesus as Lord.

He clearly didn’t like it and proceeded with some reservations, but he was at least open to the leading of the Spirit, and was prepared to set his own prejudices aside to see what God was up to. Soon enough, Peter recognized that God was again upending his understanding of reality as much as of the Scriptures, just as He had with the irrational-seeming idea of a Messiah who died, and then the even more outrageous fact of a resurrected Jesus. In the end, the Lord did more than instruct Peter to share the Gospel of Jesus with Cornelius’s household, He demonstrated that repentance and belief in the Gospel of Jesus were, alone, the prerequisites for belonging to the family of God by pouring out the Holy Spirit upon the men and women gathered under that Roman roof.

As Peter discovered, our theology is descriptive, not prescriptive; it is our collective and halting attempt to describe in coherent terms what we know of God by what we have seen of His acts and what we have read in His Word—and, above all else, by what we have seen in the acts of the Word, Jesus. And though it morphs into rules we try to impose on the divine and our neighbors, it does not in any way constrain the Lord who is constantly calling us in new ways, through new means, and telling new stories with the most unlikely characters. On the contrary, theology is put to the test not just by our logic, but by the witness of what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others around the world. Evidence of the Spirit at work is the only true measure we have of our theology; all other measures, including whether it fits our carefully-reasoned arguments of who is in and who is out, are vanity.

But, in very public fora of late, Dr. Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has been making it known that he regards those associated with the BioLogos project to be, at best “confused Christians,” with the implication being that we may be worse than unbelievers, dangerously leading the gullible to destruction. Despite his focus on the “logic” of our position vis-à-vis the Bible and his very specific definitions of both theology and evolutionary theory, the heart of Mohler’s claim that one cannot be a fully-functioning, authentic Christian and hold that God created using the process of evolution, is not, finally, about the compatibility of science and scripture, but about the power of the Holy Spirit. It is about the limits that Dr. Mohler has put on God’s ability to redeem and transform whomever He so pleases, in whatever manner He so pleases.

It is the same issue Peter faced when confronted with the vision of the sheet lowered out of heaven, which prepared him to meet Cornelius where he (and his family) were. Having seen the Holy Spirit poured out on these gentiles and former servants of Caesar, he had to ask, “Is there any reason why these should not be baptized?” In short, it is not a matter of whether Dr. Mohler (or Ken Ham, or Jerry Coyne, for that matter) find it reasonable or logically consistent or even in conformation with their readings of scripture, it is a matter of whether God has and is doing His redemptive work in the hearts, minds and lives of men and women who understand evolution to be a true material account of God’s creative work that does not in any way constrain God’s agency and sovereignty. And that is not an academic issue, but a very concrete and intensely personal one about the lives of those who hold views Dr. Mohler places outside the realm of truly following Christ.

Particularly coming from the head of the largest Southern Baptist seminary, Dr. Mohler’s repeated implications and suggestions, if not outright pronouncements, that I and anyone else who does not reject evolutionary processes are, therefore, not Christian in any but a nominal or diminished way, not authentic followers of Jesus no matter what we say and despite the evidence of the Holy Spirit both in us and working through us, seems to me to fly directly in the face of one of the central facets of Baptist tradition—that my salvation and relationship with the Father is not a matter for rulers or authorities or institutions to decide. Is there not a danger that 21st century ecclesiastical rulers and authorities might unwittingly oppose the Spirit through their all-too-human decrees, though their intention be to defend doctrines that are good and true and right?

We in the BioLogos community have on more than one occasion failed in our love precisely as Dr. Mohler and writers on all sides of this debate have. Nevertheless, our President, Darrel Falk, has repeatedly called (and been ridiculed from both left and right) for seeking unity among believers. I do not naively believe that we will miraculously come to a common understanding about the means God used in His creation, or how to read (or even translate) every passage in the Bible, or how best to organize our lives as believers together as Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Nazarenes, or Catholics, etc. Though such divisions, such divorces within the church are the surely result of the hardness of our hearts , our different theological and ecclesiastical traditions may also reflect God’s will and his desire to inhabit and work through all the myriad cultural environments in which we live, revealing and highlighting different aspects of His character in each. To the extent that we wrestle with each other over these issues with compassion and love, we demonstrate that even our conflicts may be redeemed by the Lord.

It is no small miracle that the Spirit is uniting a broken, diverse, and far-flung people into one Body, often—if not always—in spite of us, its members. In seeking unity we will see that the diversity within the Body formed by our common claim of being saved by the free, costly gift of God’s grace directs us towards a fuller understanding of the glory of God Himself and a greater humility before our brothers and sisters in Christ. Therefore, while it is problematic that Dr. Mohler so warmly agrees with Jerry Coyne regarding the ‘logical compatibility’ of evolution and religious belief, more hurtful for the Church is Dr. Coyne’s nearly gleeful account of the lack of charity within the Christian community. Dr. Mohler’s attitude and tone provide what Coyne and others take as another proof that our faith is a foolish and destructive lie.

So, recalling Peter’s conversion along with that of Cornelius, I invite Dr. Mohler to refrain from condemning (even by faint praise) those whom the Spirit has sanctified and is sanctifying, and through whom He is calling more of the lost to Himself. More, I invite him to join me at the table as a brother and to put off the too-common practice of acting as if we know everything we need to know about those on the other sides of these issues from what we read on-line.

As Cornelius asked Peter “to stay with them for a few days” to see what the Lord would be teaching them together, I invite Dr. Mohler to come and see what I see in the hearts and lives of people in the BioLogos community. Come and see what I see in the hearts and lives of specific, real live Christians in my adopted home town of Richmond, Virginia. Come and see what I have seen for years in the hearts and lives of men and women of faith directed towards the Lord by their studies of evolutionary biology, and who see the glory of God in the very process you find ugly and abominable. Come see the Spirit at work in hearts and lives focused and unconfused in their pursuit of Jesus and of His Kingdom.

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.

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Martin Rizley - #39554

November 12th 2010

The judgment on Canaan magnifies the truth of God’s warning by showing that God does not make idle threats; He is no liar.  He is thereby glorified as an absolutely truthful God.  That judgment also magnified God’s righteousness, for who, after all, was responsible for the suffering that came on the children of the Canaanites?  Not God, but the Canaanites themselves, by their refusal to repent of their rebellion against God.  The fact God gave them at least four centuries to repent magnified His longsuffering and patience, as well; it showed that He is a God of compassion who is ’slow to wrath’ because He takes no delight in judgment.  Finally, the judgment on the Canaanites served a merciful purpose toward all mankind, because it stands as an abiding warning to all peoples of the suffering they will bring upon themselves and their children if they refuse to repent of their sin and unbelief.  I am so thankful God warns me about the terrible, eternal consequences of sin through the temporal judgment that fell on those Canaanite cities!  How merciful God is to warn us ahead of time about the terrible end that awaits the ungodly! (continued)

Martin Rizley - #39555

November 12th 2010

How merciful He is to forgive us all our sins the moment we turn to Him—just as He forgave Rahab, the Canaanite woman who was spared judgment, along with her family, because she turned to the God of Israel.  Every one of us is confronted with the decision whether or not to ‘give God the benefit of the doubt’ when we read of divine actions in Scripture that may appear to us to contradict the truth that God is love.  We must decide whether we are going to place the best construction on those actions, or see them in the worst possible light, based on our fundamental distrust of God.  It appears to me that Papalinton and Steve Ruble are committed to placing the worst construction possible on God’s actions in the Bible, because of their fundamental commitment to atheism.  They KNOW that no religion can be true, since all religions, in principle, are false, being contrary to the basic principle of rationalism, which is faith human reason as the supreme arbiter of truth.  So they paint a caricature of God and attack that; but when they do, they are attacking a straw man.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #39557

November 12th 2010

My counsel to them would be to humble themselves and to recognize the limitations of their finite minds to judge the infinite God who transcends our limited comprehension, and who must be received (if at all) by faith.  God has given corroborating proof that the Scriptures are true by raising His Son from the dead; there is plenty of reason to believe in the resurrection of Christ.  Please consider it.  One final word concerning the infinite nature of God’s love.  The fact that God’s love is infinite does not mean that it is experienced by all His creatures in the same way or to the same degree.  An inexhaustible, infinitely flowing river does not necessarily water every spot on earth equally.  God’s very nature IS love, but He is sovereign in the expression of His love.  Someone has said concerning the goodness of God, “God is good to all in some ways, and good to some in all ways.”  The same thing is true of His love, which is the highest expression of His goodness.  Consequently, no one perishes because of unkindness on God’s part.  The lost in hell will not be able to say, “God wasn’t good to me.”  They will know in their hearts that God was good to them and they despised His goodness.

Steve Ruble - #39558

November 12th 2010

Many words, Martin, and not one of them addresses my question:

What action could your God take which you would call unjust?

Martin Rizley - #39562

November 12th 2010

Steve,  Well, I would include some of the things you placed on your ‘not permitted’ list.  God would be unjust:  (1) if He punished the innocent and justified the guilty so as to ignore the demands of His Law (God doesn’t ignore the demands of His law in redeeming sinners; rather, Christ voluntarily took upon Himself the legal liability of His people’s sins and made them the beneficiaries of His meritorious obedience—so the law is respected, not violated); (2)  if He let the legally guilty go unpunished (believers are not punished because Christ took their legal guilt and bore their punihsment); (3)  if He punished innocent, law-abiding people for the crimes of others (God doesn’t do this in imputing Adam’s sin to his descendants, since they have no existence as “innocent, law-abiding people” outside of Adam).  Is it unjust of God to dispense saving grace to whom He will at His sovereign pleasure?  No, because grace, by definition, is not deserved and God is not bound to show it to anyone.  When God shows grace, He shows it contrary to what people deserve and in defiance of their ill desert—but that is not unjust, since God never shows grace in a way that ignores the demands of justice.

Martin Rizley - #39567

November 12th 2010

To put it simply, God would be unjust if He did anything contrary to His own character as God, which is the standard of righteousness.  Basically, God would violate His own character if He did one of two things—if He lied, for deceit is contrary to His very nature; or, if He acted in a way that ignored the demands of His own Law.  In His dealings with us, His creatures, He never does those two things—He never lies to us, and He never deals with us in a way that violates the demands of His law.  In Christ, He has found a way to fulfill the demands of His Law, and at the same time, to pardon guilty sinners.  In doing this, He has not acted according to mere justice, but according to His grace and mercy.  You seem to be saying, however, that for God to treat us justly, He ‘owes’ us grace—and I disagree with you there.  Since grace is undeserved favor, He doesn’t owe grace to anyone, nor is He obliged to bestow grace in equal measure to all His creatures—for in that case, grace would not be grace.  Read Romans 9.

Paul R - #39591

November 12th 2010

Thanks for the article. I feel, though, that we are giving men like Al Mohler much too much attention and try to argue with them - to little avail. He seems to live in an ivory tower of self-assured imperviousness to reason and scientific evidence.

When he talks about ‘Why does the earth look so old?’ and tries to argue against established science on the basis that the bible tells it differently, then where is any common ground for discourse?
I want to respect him as a person but some of his views surely are one big flight from reality.

Fundamentalism is and will always be an intellectual disaster (Mark Noll)

Steve Ruble - #39594

November 12th 2010

Martin, there’s really not much to say about your first response: all you’re doing is saying, “It is so just for God to punish the innocent instead of the guilty, and to arbitrarily let guilty people go unpunished for no reason.”  Again, there’s no definition of “justice” which includes those actions.  When you say that God is “just”, you seem to be trying to trick people into thinking that God engages in what everyone thinks of as justice, when you actually mean the opposite.  Why can’t you just say what you mean?

In your second response you are essentially admit what I’ve been arguing all along: that your adjectives about God boil down to saying that God is the way he is. You go on to say that God doesn’t deceive people - which contradicts your scripture in several places - and that he never ignores the demands of “His own Law”.  That last bit is interesting, because “His own Law”, presumably, is just exactly what he wants it to be.  In other words, all you’ve said that God is righteous because he follows the rules he made up for himself, and those rules are good because God is the most powerful.  I couldn’t really ask for a better demonstration that you worship a God of Power, nothing more.

Martin Rizley - #39598

November 12th 2010

Steve,  You write, “All you’ve said is that God is righteous because he follows the rules he made up for himself, and those rules are good because God is the most powerful”  I wouldn’t say that God ‘made up’ rules for Himself; rather, God’s rules ‘flow out’ of His very nature, a nature which He did not “choose,” since He is what He is from all eternity.  God didn’t choose to be light, rather than darkness, for example.  He IS light—that is His nature from all eternity.  Because He is light, He cannot lie, because it is the nature of light to show things for what they are.  The rules of morality flow out of who God is.  Because He is faithful, He commands us to be faithful; because He is wise, He commands us to be wise; because He is truthful, He commands us to be truthful.  God didn’t ‘choose’ arbitrarily to be faithful and wise and truthful.  He is all those things essentially.  Now, it is certainly true that there is no ‘law’ outside of God to which He must conform, for there is nothing whatsoever that precedes God.  But that does that make God’s law arbitrary, since God did not arbitrarily choose His own nature.  He is what He is, from all eternity, and that determines the laws that He establishes.

Steve Ruble - #39599

November 12th 2010

Now you’re just making stuff up, Martin. 

He IS light—that is His nature from all eternity.

That must be a different kind of light than the kind of light that God made when he said, “Let there be light,” since that wouldn’t make any sense if God already was light.

...it is the nature of light to show things for what they are

Ever hear of holograms? Or Industrial Light and Magic? What are you talking about?

Because He is X, he commands us to be X

Right, and because he is all powerful, he commands us to be all powerful. Because he is triune, he commands us to be triune.  Because he is unaccountable, he commands us to be unaccountable.  Why are you only picking some traits to make claims about?

But that does not make God’s law arbitrary, since God did not arbitrarily choose His own nature.

So he arbitrarily didn’t choose his own nature? Or do you mean that he didn’t arbitrarily choose his own nature? Or that he didn’t arbitrarily choose his own nature?

Do you think the things you are writing make sense?

Martin Rizley - #39600

November 12th 2010

Steve,  You also write, “When you say that God is “just”, you seem to be trying to trick people into thinking that God engages in what everyone thinks of as justice, when you actually mean the opposite.  Why can’t you just say what you mean?”  I am not tricking people at all, for it should be obvious to all that God and man are not on the same level, so He cannot be judged according to a merely human standard of justice.  For God to act justly is to act in accordance with His own nature as God, since His very nature defines what justice is.  For man to act justly is to act in imitation of God, according to the Law that flows out of God’s nature.  But God, precisely because He is God, can justly do things which men can never do.  For example, He can justly impute sin to His only begotten Son, so that He can act as a vicarious sin bearer to remove from sinners the guilt of sin, the just in the place of the unjust.    Earthly judges obviously cannot do that.  So we cannot take some ‘law’ that is external to God and use that to judge Him—His very nature is the source of all law and the standard of righteousness.  He is the only Being who can rightly act as a ‘law to Himself,’ since by nature, He can do nothing wrong.

Martin Rizley - #39601

November 12th 2010

One other thing.  As far as God commanding us to reflect His moral character but not commanding us to do impossible things—such as to be ‘all powerful’ like Himself—that is based on the distinction between what theologians call God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes.  I think the basic difficulty you’re having with what I’m saying is that you’re expecting everything about God to be simple, straightforward and easy to fit within our nice, neat, logical categories—as if God were a construct of our rational minds.  But God is, by definition, incomprehensible.  We can only partially grasp what the Bible reveals about Him, such as His triune nature, or His omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.  But should that surprise us, in light of the nature of the universe we live in?  I mean, why would we think that the God who created quantum physics would be simple to understand?

Steve Ruble - #39602

November 12th 2010

God didn’t ‘choose’ arbitrarily to be faithful and wise and truthful. He is all those things essentially.

OK, so there’s nothing admirable or moral about God’s possesion of those traits - it’s not as though he ever makes anything like a moral choice about whether or not to break his rules.  It’s never even an option.

So what’s respectable, or glorious, or worthy of worship, in a being like that? God as an Asimov robot, constrained to do specific moral actions only… that’s a being even more unappealing than your other God, the one who can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. 

So do you worship a God that can make meaningful choices, Martin, but chooses to do brutal, arbitrary, and immoral things to his creation, or a God which cannot make meaningful choices and somehow allows horrible things to be done in his name? You can’t have it both ways…

Steve Ruble - #39603

November 12th 2010

I am not tricking people at all, for it should be obvious to all that God and man are not on the same level, so He cannot be judged according to a merely human standard of justice.

I suppose you are right. It should be obvious to everyone that when you say that God is just, you aren’t actually claiming that he’s just in any meaningful sense (i.e., a sense that has anything to do with justice as everyone understands it).  I’m just making sure that it’s extra clear.

Martin, I think that the basic difficulty you’re having is that you seem to think that you can honestly use words like “righteous” and “just” to describe God when you are using a unique definition of those words that is only meaningful when applied to God.  It’s as if I were to say, “God is pathetic”, and when you objected, I were to reply, “I mean ‘pathetic’ in the sense that He is all powerful.”  In other words, what you mean when you attach these words to God is completely disassociated from the everyday meanings of those words. 

You say that we can’t judge God by our standards, with our minds. OK. Then stop doing it.

Martin Rizley - #39604

November 13th 2010

Steve,  I have always said God can do anything that He wants that is in accordance with His own nature.  Omnipotence is not the power to do literally anything.  For example, God cannot do things which are nonsensical—like make a square triangle.  Nor can He do things contrary to His moral nature, such as lying or breaking His promises or approving of the evil actions that men commit.  Omnipotence is God’s power to accomplish all that He wills that is in keeping with His own divine nature, and that is not an outright contradiction—such a making a round rectangle .  Theologians have long struggled with the question as to how human language can be meaningful when applied to God.  The basic answer is that such language language is true on an ‘analogical’ level.  That is to say, we can speak of God as just because there is in His being an attribute that is analogous to what we call justice in human beings.  It is like when the Bible speaks of God ‘laying bear His arm’ , or when it speaks of the ‘eyes of the Lord’ watching over men.  God doesn’t have literal arms or eyes, but the language is true, on an analogical level (not a literal level), to describe God’s capacity to act in power and to behold His creation.

Papalinton - #39611

November 13th 2010

@ Martin
All that you write above including responses to Steve Ruble is theo-speak, a ‘speaking in tongue’ endemic in theist thought patterns.  It is a language constructed within Apologetics to derive some element of sensibility to the arcane nature of the bible. 

The words of any merit you speak, Martin, are “.. God is, by definition, incomprehensible.” 
It is incomprehensible not because Apologetics hasn’t tried [goodness knows, two thousand years,and it is still incomprehensible] but because there is nothing there to make sense of. 
To sum up your list of god attributes, Martin, together with my reasoned response:
God is not matter, neither is non-existence
God does not have limitations, neither does non-existence
God is not visible, neither is non-existence
God cannot be described, neither can non-existence

You see Martin, in the brain of every religious person is a god-shaped vacuum.  And it must be filled.  Since science is now just coming out of its infancy it is unfortunate that theology got a two millennia head start, because it’s going to take generations to dislodge the ancient worldview that had never been challenged before.  But the change is inexorable, as the debate in BioLogos points.


BioLogos - #39612

November 13th 2010



Papalinton - #39617

November 13th 2010

Hi BioLogos

Thank you for stating the site’s position. 

It is, for me,  the ethics of signaling the veiled threat that is problematic.  Indeed it is anathema to open discourse.  If there is such a person deemed to be contravening the BioLogos position, the administrators should flag that person with reasons for the contravention.

I, for one, applaud BioLogos’s position and if there are theists at this site that are questioning or undermining BioLogos’s ‘faith statement’, they should be called to account, but openly, in the spirit of true dialogue. 

For example, my statement, “But the change is inexorable, as the debate in BioLogos points” does not in any way present blog material as though it is official BioLogos policy.  It is simply a reflection [an assessment if you will] of the range of differing views of both believers and unbelievers on various subjects offered up for discussion over time.  BioLogos has been aware and understands that I offer comment that is diametric to that of BioLogos.  But we share a common interest in science although from different perspectives.  Logic and reason, together with faith, must never be a given,  and must be questioned and tested, to advance our common interests.


Martin Rizley - #39662

November 13th 2010

Biologos,  If diverse writers for the Biologos website present ONE view of a particular doctrinal issue, and a differing view is never presented by ANY writer, then it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the website, per se, endorses the ONE view that is being presented; or if ‘endorses’ is too strong a word, one can say that it regards that view, which is repeatedly presented in different articles, as ‘acceptable’ within the context of Christian orthodoxy.  That is, it does not regard that view as heretical.  For example, if the website published several articles promoting Rudof Bultmann’s heretical view of the resurrection, as a mythical, non-historical event, and no article defending the classic, orthodox view, one would have to conclude that the website regarded Bultmann’s view as acceptable within the context of orthodoxy.  To avoid that impression, the website has a definite responsibility NOT to publish articles that contain hereteical teaching, or to officially ‘disclaim’ the heresy in the article.  It cannot expect to promotes an heretical views and ‘receive a pass’ from its readers, or expect not to raise a word of protest.

Martin Rizley - #39664

November 13th 2010

Papalinton,  I am grieved by your hateful attitude toward God, and I see very little value in carrying on our conversation when your mind is so completely closed to considering the possibility that non-material, non-physical realities exist.  I should point out to you that, if you are going to be consistent in your argument, then you cannot stop at the word “God.”  ANY reality that is non-material and non-physical must be regarded as having no ‘objective’ existence or reality.  That would include morality itself, for morality is not a physical entity that can be weighed or seen through a microscope or detected with physical instruments of any sort.  Thus, if a person wants to run an old lady down with his car or torture her to death, rather than help her cross the street, the universe is utterly silent regarding the moral character of either action.  If that woman’s blind, unthinking ‘mother’—the godless cosmos—cares nothing for her ‘child,’ why should anyone else?  That’s because: morality is not matter, morality is not visible, etc.; so there is nothing to distinguish morality from non-existence.  If matter is all there is, nothing matters.  Therein lies the total absurdity of the atheist’s position.

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