Why Christians should strive for Academic Excellence

Kepler

The godly life is not the monopoly of those who are in the pulpit and mission field.  There is godliness in the shuffle of pages in a book as one does his research; or in working with test tubes in the lab; or analyzing data with his computer program.  There is God’s calling of proclaiming the good news of special revelation.  But it is also God’s calling to scrutinize and systematize general revelation.  Godliness for the Christian student should mean seeking to excel in the latter quest.

 

Nelson  Mandela (1918-2013) is one of the greatest statesmen in history.  He became president of South Africa after spending almost three decades in solitary confinement in prison.  One might expect that a man forged in years of bitter struggle would be full of vindictiveness and use his power to exact vengeance.  Not Mandela.  He used his power to do good to his divided people – both white and black.  And when he had power extension for the asking, he chose to step down when his term was up.  What did he believe to be the most important agent for change in society?  One of the most famous quotes from him is, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The Christian should heartily agree to the extent that education is not used to violate God’s will, but to serve it.  This is to say that Christians should be foremost in promoting education; and therefore, Christians should be marked for academic excellence.

Why the Hesitation?

Not all Christians are of this conviction.  Sometimes consciously, in most cases, more of an attitude absorbed from untruthful teaching in Christian discourses.  The mind should be disabused of any of these.

There is the false application of the nearness of Christ’s coming.  Regardless of one’s eschatology (teaching about the last things), to use the Second Coming as pretext for lack of academic striving is wrong in a number of serious ways.  But just to point one: It is wrong in its idea of what it means to be ready for Christ’s Coming.  Many think that it means a special kind of preparation that renounces the day-to-day affairs of life.  That is precisely the error that Paul needed to correct of the Thessalonians, some of whom were deserting their work because of a wrong expectation of Christ’s return.  As a result, they were becoming dependent on the benevolence of brethren.  Paul exhorted them, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thess. 4:11-12 ESV).  Our faithfulness when Christ comes will be judged on how we used our opportunities on earth; for it will be a judgment “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).  Even on the impossible supposition that one knew that Christ is coming again on a Monday, a Christian student should still be attending his scheduled classes!  That is to be ready for Christ – to find the disciple where he ought to be by vocation.

Another thing is a wrong association of knowledge with worldliness.  The world, when used in connection with its sinfulness, is indeed in rebellion against the rule of Christ.  But the world is also used as the theatre of God’s mercy and provision.  The old divines call it Common Grace – the favours of God short of salvation.  As such, one precious favour of God is the advance of knowledge – much of which happens in an academic atmosphere.  Paul cites the wisdom of pagans: the Cretan philosopher Epimenides (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus (Acts 17:28).  Even when the source is not patently Christian, good wisdom is still from God.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17).

It is true that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1Cor 1:27).  The context clearly is the contrast between proud wisdom that refuses to acknowledge God, and humility that appears to proud wisdom as folly.  This is not an endorsement of folly as such!

Whose Revelation?

A case may be made for pursuing knowledge in the world from the classic doctrine of God’s revelation.  The only way man can know God is for God to reveal Himself.  Man cannot discover God by sheer experiment or deduction.  God chose to give man a piece of His own mind.  But how?  According to classic theology, there are two ways.  There is special revelation by way of special modes in the past (e.g. visions; predominantly through prophets).  At this present time, that special revelation is now deposited in the inspired writings – the Holy Scripture.

But for man’s productive and peaceful life on earth, God also speaks through His creation – the world and humanity.  This is general revelation.  The Old Testament memorable text is Psalm 19:1, 2: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”  This reveals the glory of the universe considered as God’s creation.  God is speaking through nature and creature!  The New Testament text connects this to the inexcusable sinfulness of man.  Paul asserts in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Reformed theologian, GC Berkouwer, summarizes it very well:

Man is and remains man confronted with the reality of God’s revelation, confronted with the sovereign working of God in nature, in history, and in human existence.  He is confronted with the reality of God who is never far from any one of us and who never allows himself to be without witness in creaturely reality.[1]

Both the beauty and dignity of the creation, as well as, the sinfulness and inexcusableness of humanity are objects of knowledge.  Therefore the Christian has a basis for pursuing knowledge that is God-oriented.  It was well-stated by that great German scientist and a Christian, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), “Science is the process of thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”  This was a motivation for his formulating the complex Laws of Planetary Motion.  Academic sciences and arts contribute to our understanding of what God is revealing about the earth and about man.  One sees the formulas of God whether they are in the astronomic sizes of galaxies or the sub-atomic realm of quantum physics.  There is truth to Galileo’s assertion: “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  Even if one has no predilection for numbers, he should have high regard for the work of calculating and measuring.  Another may choose to dip into the beauty of creation through arts – proportions and colours; representation and symbolism – and they too are noble.

The godly life is not the monopoly of those who are in the pulpit and mission field.  There is godliness in the shuffle of pages in a book as one does his research; or in working with test tubes in the lab; or analyzing data with his computer program.  There is God’s calling of proclaiming the good news of special revelation.  But it is also God’s calling to scrutinize and systematize general revelation.  Godliness for the Christian student should mean seeking to excel in the latter quest.

Delight and Discipline

 I plead to my Christian readers who are students: seek delight and cultivate discipline in your academic studies.

Mould your delight from the thought that you are receiving the speech of God, even if that is not from the inspired writings of Scripture.  What is not inspired by the Holy Spirit, as the original Scriptures are, will not be inerrant and infallible.  But to the extent that it is an expression of God’s general revelation, it is intended for the glory of God and the profit of mankind.  Make your course –  your subject, homework and projects – matters for prayer.  Do not let God’s speech in general revelation become an occasion for proud wisdom.  As you give thanks for your daily food, so give thanks for the feeding of the mind.

Because of the reality of sin, and the anomalies of the world we live in, it is not sensible to expect delight in one’s study at all times.  This is where discipline is necessary.  Discipline is the sense of duty to do what must be done even when delight is not felt.  It is a principle in all Christian works that one must be able to do them with discipline to expect those times to do them with delight.  He who will only perform where there is delight will never be mature.  This is true of prayer – one must pray with discipline, and in the process pray more with delight.  This is true of worship – worship with discipline, and worship with delight will develop.  Make it so in study – study as a discipline, and then delight will grow.

More than three decades ago, I pioneered a church whose first membership was almost all students.  The church was situated in an academic community.  I have seen first hand how it is, not only possible, but a reality and an imperative – that a Christian student serious about his faith will be serious in his academic pursuits.  He seeks to excel.  Those students at the beginning of the church are now accomplished people in various fields.  And they are still robust in their Christian faith.  They took seriously the words of Wisdom, and they are happily reaping the harvest of academic excellence:

Do you see a man who excels in his work?

He will stand before kings;

He will not stand before unknown men. (Prov. 22:29 NKJ)

 

[1] GC Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: General Revelation: (Eerdmans Publishing; 1973): 162

‘I know who holds the future’ of 2018

Ecc 7 14

The Economist issue on “The World in 2018” is summarized succinctly by its editor thus: “It promises to be a nerve-jangling year.”  So it may prove to be.

Futurology is the study of future possibilities based on current trends.  That it uses scientific tools differentiates it from divining out of crystal balls or tarot cards.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it is responsible to use current patterns – economic, political, demographic; etc. – to extrapolate expectations.  Proper preparations can then be set up.

That conceded, a Christian must be alert to the pride that often attends such prognostications.  The future that experts predict as sure has so often bombed.  We are periodically inconvenienced by a failed weather forecast.  Investments deemed to earn sure profit fall flat.  Stock  markets jitter between bear and bull.  And need we be reminded of who, the polls were sure, to win the last American presidential elections?  Overheard of a crew member trying to assure an anxious passenger of the Titanic were the words, “Madam, even God cannot sink the Titanic!”  Whether or not the story really happened, it is an everyday fact that human pride excludes God from consideration of the future.

While we do our responsible preparations for what the future may bring, it must be in humble spirit.  It is balance that is struck by biblical Wisdom: The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD. (Prov. 21:31 ESV).  Whatever the battle confronting us, there is to be due readiness with all tools and implements at disposal.  This applies to our academic studies, our jobs and commerce, and national plans.  But behind even the most meticulous planning should be the humble recognition that only God’s favour can give success.  So James advises for every human plan, you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’ (Jas. 4:14-15).

James touches the most basic of human limitations: you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  This is true of the tomorrow of the next 24 hours; and that of the next 365 days of 2018.  It calls for humility that casts oneself upon the God who alone knows and holds the future.  The Lord is jealous for His sovereignty over the future.  Against the false gods of Babylon, He claims for Himself: I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ (Isa. 46:9-10).

But in our generation, to be told that one is unable to shape his future by himself goes against present wisdom.  Bookstores are littered with bestsellers that assure their readers, Your best life now!  It is pride that will laugh at the words of the song, I do not know what lies ahead / The way I cannot see / Yet One stands near to be my Guide / He’ll show the way to me!

Without the assurance of the God who holds the future, anticipating that future will alternate between a fearsome darkness, or a prideful path.  One may face the future like Dylan Thomas, Rage, rage against the dying of the light!  Or else, own the resolve of William Ernest Henley, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!

Neither is acceptable to the believer who has learned to submit to God in His sovereign control.  That submission will not yield to a fearsome darkness of superstition, nor will it own a prideful path of self-direction.  Instead it confesses in the wise words of biblical Wisdom: In the day of prosperity be joyful; but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find out nothing that will come after him (Ecclesiastes 7:14).  The Christian will own every line of that song, adding its plea:

I know who holds the future,

And He’ll guide me with His hand.

With God, things don’t just happen,

Everything by Him is planned.

So as I face tomorrow,

With its problems large and small,

I’ll trust the God of providence,

Give to Him my all.

A God-blessed future for everyday of 2018 to all!

Mystery more than Merriment

Birth of Jesus

Merry Christmas! is the most common greeting heard in these festive days of the season.  Christmas is the Christian ‘festival’ that celebrates the birth of Christ.  In Western Christendom, it falls on December 25; while in the East, it is celebrated on January 7.  Merry is considered an archaic word used mostly for this season’s greeting.  It denotes ‘full of gaiety or high spirits: marked by animation or vivacity.’[i]

What is it that we are urged to be full of gaiety about?  It is the birth of Jesus that is supposedly to be celebrated.  And what a celebration!  Generous gifts and sumptuous dinners; bubbly parties and lavish décor; Santa Claus with reindeers; manger scene and Christmas trees; Nativity plays and endless sales!  If this were any birthday, the celebration may be in order, though the more frugal will cringe at the excess.  Then, it is argued, it is the birthday of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, therefore the merriment should be to the max.  Never mind that most of those who celebrate have no conviction of sin, and no sense of their need of the Saviour.  After all, as the Jackson Five sings, “It’s that once of year when the world’s sincere.”

Let us pause to reflect.  What should come most to mind as the message of the birth of the Son of God in that lowly manger of Bethlehem?

There is nothing significant from the date.  If there is any scholarly agreement, it is by negation – that Jesus could not be born in December!  We know that the festive celebration merely took over from what it was in pagan Saturnalia celebrated in the same season.  And December 25 perpetuated the festivities that attended the coronation of the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne, on that date in the year 800.  As to the year, it has long been established as certain that the death of Herod the Great was in 4 BC.  Jesus could not be born after that since Herod played a vital role in the birth narratives of the Gospels.  The most current consensus is that Jesus was born in that year of 4 BC – an anomaly to say that Jesus was born 4 years before Christ!  We can only conlude that the providence of God did not intend for the year or date to be made into a feast.

What did the apostles remember most when they think of the birth of Jesus?  Other than the Gospel narratives in Matthew and Luke, there is no looking back to the event of the nativity in the rest of the New Testament.  The astonishment falls on the mystery of, what theology designates as, the Incarnation – the becoming flesh of the Son of God.  This truth is most emphatically asserted in John 1:14, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV).  For the word dwelt, John employs the verb for ‘tabernacle.’  It may literally be rendered tabernacled among us.  This gives a significant insight to the word glory.  In the context of the tabernacle in the Wilderness journey of the Israelites, that pertains to the Shekinah glory that descended upon the tabernacle as a sign of Yahweh’s presence.  Could we imagine the Israelites greeting that glory with merry festivities?  The one time that the Israelites had such festivity was in the offence of the golden calf!  For John, the glory that was most astonishing was that hidden by the lowliness of flesh – the glory of the Son of God, known only to the humble perception of faith.

How should this lowly assumption of humanity by the Son of God impact upon believers?  There is no better passage than what has been called the Carmen Christie (Hymn to Christ) passage of Philippians 2:5-11.  The most significant words are:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:5-7)

Philippians 2 has become a focus of debate surrounding the words, emptied himself.  Since the verb in Greek is ekenôsen, it is given the name kenosis (‘emptying’).  The question that has been debated is What was the Son of God emptied of when He was incarnated?  Was it consciousness of divinity?  Was it some attributes He was deprived of?  Was He any less God during the period of his ministry on earth?  All these questions are missing the point because they take a literal understanding of the emptying.  The usage of the term in the NT is always figurative, never literal; (cf. Rom. 4:14; 1Cor. 1:17; 9:15; 2Cor. 9:3).  A good word in place of the literal ‘empty’ is discount; not self-regarding; or the old KJV “made no reputation.”  The thrust is not what He was less of, but what the Son of God became because of that discounting attitude – He became a Servant, obedient to the death of the Cross.  As Calvin comments, “Christ, indeed, could not divest himself of godhead, but he kept it concealed for a time that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh.  Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.”

The mystery of this act is succinctly summarized by Augustine: Remaining what He was, He became what He was not.  And in becoming what He was not, there lies the staggering lowliness that the Son of God exercised to be obedient to the Father, and to be an example to His followers of what it means, Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:4 ESV)  Underpinning this passage is the implied contrast with Adam in Eden.  As one expositor explains, “Adam in Eden ( Gen 3:5–7 ) grasped or sought to seize equality with God. In so doing he sinned and experienced the judgment of God. Unlike Adam, Christ did not think this equality with God was a thing to be seized or snatched. Instead Jesus embraced his humanity, affirming his creatureliness. He did this by emptying himself of his aspirations to be God, and accepting a life of obedient service. This obedience ultimately required his death, even death on a cross.”[ii]

Theology calls this the state of humiliation.  One theologian explains, “Behind it, there lay two great decisions.  The first, pre-temporal, was the decision of the eternal Son to assume the form of a servant and the likeness of men.  The second, taken once he was incarnate, was the decision to humble himself even further.  From this point of view, the humiliation of Christ was not a point, but a line.  Its greatest single step was that by which he became the child in the manger.  The condescension involved in that is beyond imagining.  Yet it was only the beginning of the long downward journey through homelessness, poverty, exhaustion, shame and pain to Gethsemane; and beyond that to Calvary.”[iii]

This reminds us that the singular goal of this humiliation of the Son of God is for the mission of redemption accomplished on the Cross.  Therefore, the object of saving faith is not the manger, at all – it is the Death and Resurrection of Christ.  How many who celebrate Christmas salve their conscience with the thought that they prove themselves good Christians, who have no idea about the saving significance of the Cross?

While the manger birth is not the object of saving faith, it is a model of lowliness for the believer.  Does the season’s tradition of profligacy reflect such lowliness?  This is not to deny one a good conscience if he wishes to celebrate Christmas as a Christian.  It is rather a challenge to the attitude.   Are we seeking the imprint marked by the obscurity and anonymity that attended the birth of Jesus?  This is animated where we emulate its lowliness while yet so amazed at the staggering truth that it is no less God who became a genuine human baby in the manger.  This He did for the even lower humbling that it took to die on the Cross as Substitute to redeem sinners.

Merry?  How about awesome mystery!

Meekness and majesty, manhood and Deity

In perfect harmony, the Man who is God.

Lord of eternity, dwells in humanity;

Kneels in humility, and washes our feet.

O what a mystery, meekness and majesty!

Bow down and worship, for this is your God

 

[i] Merriam-Webster Unabridged (unabridged.merriam-webster.com)

[ii] Paul Feinberg, “The Kenosis and Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Analysis of Phil 2:6-11” from Trinity Journal (Spring 1980) p. 28

[iii] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ: p. 218

Making a Stand

Teaching

Did Martin Luther really say, ‘Here I stand.  I can do no other.  So help me God!’?  That statement, after all, creates the drama of that speech in the Diet of Worms in 1521.  To remove it is like saying that Douglas MacArthur never had his I shall return moment.   Or that Han Solo never said to Skywalker, May the force be with you.  Or that Apollo 13 did not call to base, Houston, we have a problem!  To eliminate that line gives the feeling of an amputation of a precious part.

Many scholars are of the belief that the dramatic line of Luther’s speech was a later addition, not part of the original.  The line was in the earliest printed version of the speech.  But it was not in the minutes, the on the spot record, of the Diet.  I have this weird idea that probably, at that point, the recorder(s) of the minutes was himself riveted by the drama of the moment, and skipped that line – and someone else was making his own on the spot record, which found its way in the printed version.

Of course, that cannot be the way we write history.  The Reformation historian, Heiko Oberman, in his masterful Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (English edition Yale, 1989), suggests the following as original in Luther’s speech:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.[i]

But ultimately, does it really matter if that line was uttered or not?  To me, the most profoundly radical line is in the words: My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  And because of that, Luther made the stand that he did, whether or not he uttered the dramatic words.  He made a stand that defied the most powerful institution of that period.  Because he made a stand, history changed course.

This poses a penetrating question to each of us who espouses the principles of the Reformation in our own generation.  Are we making a stand where it is most challenging?

 

Making a Stand in a Roman Catholic Household

 Living in a society where more than 80% of households are Catholic, any member of such household who experiences gospel conversion is immediately cast into a gauntlet.  Because the challenged party is of loved ones, it makes the dare even more excruciating.  That many families today happily recognize and practice freedom of religion for their own members does not make the decision to make a stand any less poignant.

There is a significant number, however, that is still saddled with Middle Ages intolerance.   For any member of its own household changing religious affiliation is unacceptable rebellion.  Short of the honor-killing that still transpires in Islamic household, there are other options, such as, disinheritance, ostracism, and banishment from home.  Under these conditions, many converts choose to be silent; and some of them still go through the motions of Catholic rituals in the family – e.g. rosary and mass.  One must exercise every sympathy for those who choose this option.  But at the end of the day, it is a lamentable compromise – a failure to make a stand.

It was Jesus who challenged loyalties in His words, Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10:34-38 ESV)

No religious faith promotes family faithfulness and dutifulness more than does the Judeo-Christian religion.  But such is the world-altering impact of the kingdom of Christ.  Since its inauguration in the death-resurrection of the Christ-event, all who will become members of His kingdom, those who submit allegiance in faith to His Lordship, must have no greater authority over them – not the state; and no greater love – not even the family.  A member of the kingdom of Christ will love his family even more – for the sake of Christ.  But he will not, and must not, on account of love for family, abandon Jesus in His demands as Lord.

This is where a gospel convert in a Catholic family is being called to make a stand.  To make a stand is not to abandon the family.  That is what cults on the fringe will tell their followers; not the Christian gospel.  A converted husband or wife will be even more loving and faithful to the spouse; and a converted son or daughter will be the more obedient and compliant to parents.  What marks their stand is the Lordhsip of Christ giving the direction, the motivation, and yes, also the limitation in the practice of their relationship.

The discovery of the gospel of grace would have exposed the contradiction of Catholic rituals and their false hope in human righteousness.  A true believer glories in what the Reformers call alien righteousness that is in Christ.  A believer’s liberation from self-righteousness would bring with it a similar change of judgment as Paul had of his Judaism: I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3:8 ESV).

 

Making a Stand in a Compromised Evangelical Church

Rather than an easier challenge, being in an Evangelical church renders making a stand even more agonizing.  Presumably, that is where the believer might have found his converting faith in the gospel.  His commitment to his church would have been animated with gratitude for saving grace.  The people in that church, he would be counting as brethren as dear as, if not more than, his own family.  The leaders, the pastor especially, would be like his spiritual fathers.

But it is often the case that what he has learned to accept as his spiritual abode is challenged by the discovery of Reformation truths, long hidden from him.  He discovers a teaching of grace that has much more depth than what he is wont to hear from the pulpit as no more than opposite to salvation by works.  He learns that grace is the free disposition of the sovereign God.  Knowing that the giving of grace to whom He wills is God’s choice in eternity – unnerving at first – discovers the sinner’s utter unworthiness.  While in his young days, he has accepted the definition of grace as undeserved favor, this is still different from what he now knows as the doctrines of grace.

Reformation truths would have also exposed something wrong about the method of evangelism that he has been taught is the way to get sinners saved.  A few spiritual notions to share which once accepted, there is a ready formula of a sinner’s prayer he was trained to dictate – and then assure the prospect that he has been saved and is going to heaven, and never to doubt it.  He once enjoyed the simplicity of it all.  He joined the chorus of Amen! by the crowd once the pastor reported so many number of decisions for Christ.  Of course, he wondered why many of those so pronounced never showed any sign of change.  But then, after all, he was taught that there was a category of Christians who remained worldly – they were still going to heaven, though without reward.  Carnal Christians, that is what they were called.

This exposes for him another issue.  Where has holiness gone?  The teaching he received is to the effect that holiness is a second blessing that many, unfortunately, never attain to.  They remain unsanctified most, or even all, of their lives.  But he was told it was unkind to doubt that they were true Christians.  Until he hears the Reformation challenge that restores some truths taught from the long past.  He is reminded that there is a warning, For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace (Rom. 8:6 NKJ).  There is also the exhortation, Pursue… holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord (Heb 12:14 NKJ).  Does this not sound like, no holiness no heaven?  He never hear such a principle in his evangelical church.

As more of the old truths pile up in this Christian, he will soon come to a denouement.  He comes to the conclusion – he may have been avoiding for as long as he could – that his beloved evangelical church is compromised!  What is he to do?  It will be wrong to suggest that making a stand immediately leads to separation.  He will seek what he could do to influence the church to the ways of reformation.  The right balance is to accept that we are in an imperfect church, but that imperfection is not a cover for the degeneration of a church.  The Confession of faith strikes this balance:

The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always has had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in Him, and make profession of His name.[ii]

After trying everything to influence for reformation, and to find that the leadership, instead, is digging its heels for a stand on the compromised ways, a believer must come to a point of decision.  Will he make a stand?  To do so is like tearing his own flesh and breaking his bones.  Many choose to just grit their teeth amidst the falsehood, and they stay on.  It is a miserable decision.

 

Martin Luther made a stand as a Catholic monk in defiance of his beloved Church.  The decision of Luther in the 16th century extends the challenge to us, 500 years since, in this 21st century.  Not to make a stand is the easier option.  It does not make ripples of trouble.  It courts no enemies.  It bears no burden of conflict.  It is to live in quietude.  But it is the immobility of the comatose – just barely living without changing course.

But one cannot catch the infection of the Reformation without being called to make a step of conscience.  Whether one has a dramatic line is immaterial.  It is imperative that one should be of the conviction, My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  That is the man who will make a stand.

 Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is forever.

 

[i] Cited in Christian History # 34: Luther’s Early Years

[ii] 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: XXVI. 3

The Most Viral Post

Ninety five theses

This month of October, followers celebrate – opponents lament; otherwise, most ignore – the 500th year of the Reformation.  It began with the most viral post in history.  Except that the author had no social media to post it in.  In 1517, there was the church door – among other places – to make public a notice or an invitation.  But when the German monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg, its result was more viral than any contemporary Facebook post.

The year 1517 was an eventful year in Europe.  Politically, that year saw the rise of Spain as world power as the Habsburg rule became a reality when Charles I made a triumphal entry into Valladolid in Central Spain.  In Egypt, the Ottoman occupied Cairo after defeating the Mamluks.  Perhaps, most important of all – if only to explain productive nights since – it was the year that coffee was introduced into Europe.  So why was a piece of paper on a church door more history-making than anything?

What was it all about?  There are those who see only political conspiracy behind the performance, as German nationalism was emergent.  There was also economic motivation to suspect, as royalties of Europe were jealous of the Church’s wealth; and merchants resented paying taxes to the Church.  Then there is also the suggestion that on that day, Luther had a bad case of constipation!

There was a more reasonable motivation.  And it was not only a debate over the papal indulgences that Johann Tetzel was selling around Europe – though that brought matters into the surface.  Ironically, Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses just seven months after the conclusion of the Fifth Lateran Council in which Pope Leo X confidently declared that all necessary Church reform has been accomplished.  For Luther, it was a question of what was genuine righteousness – or how is one to be regarded as accepted by God; in Reformation language, justification before God.  This appears on the very first thesis of the 95 Theses: When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.  From the point-of-view of the author of that post, the appropriate tag-line is one that is theological.

Even a secular historian acknowledges this theological underpinning.  In John Whitney Hall’s history textbook, History of the World, it is noted: For the next 150 years Germany – and much of Western Europe – would find itself in a turmoil of social unrest, war and insurrection.  The small peak of the indulgence question rested upon a pyramid of Catholic theology and practice whose foundations were centuries old.  Yet the mighty edifice of the medieval Church and society would eventually shatter and plunge Western Europe into a period of bitter religious strife and political confusion.[1]

An Evangelical historian elucidates this further.  Matthew Barret, in his “The Crux of Genuine Reform,” explains: Countless historians have gone to great lengths to explain the Reformation through social, political, and economic causes.  No doubt each of these played a role during the Reformation, and at times a significant role.  Yet most fundamentally, the Reformation was a theological movement, caused by doctrinal concerns.  Though political, social, and economic factors were important, observes Timothy George, ‘we must recognize that the Reformation was essentially a religious event; its deepest concerns, theological.’  What this means, then, is that we must be ‘concerned with the theological self-understanding’ of the Reformers.[2]

 It is the contention of this simple piece that the theology that underpinned the 16th century Reformation is still very much crying out for proclamation seeking contemporary reformation today.

 

Needed by contemporary Roman Catholicism

The response of the Roman Church to the Reformation was a massive consolidation of its own theology.  The Council of Trent was convened and, off-and-on, met in the city of Tridentus from 1545 to 1563.  It gave the most official definition of the doctrines of the Church.  It liberally pronounced anathemas on those who differed from the official definition – they were labelled as heretics.  This response of the Church was fittingly called the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

There are those who will assert that the RCC is now existentially different from the Church of Trent; especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  One should not deny the reality of changes in the Church.  If anything, gone are the anathemas on heretics, but a more welcoming stance on separated brethren.  The most important change, that Evangelicals must welcome, is the new positive policy to the reading of the Scriptures by the laity: Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.[3]

Evangelicals need not see a specious concession on the part of the RCC.  It is beside the point. We can never limit what power of the Word can seize a liberated reader than it would have been possible if the Bible were still forbidden reading.  Behind this is the conviction that the power of God is behind His Word.  So Isaiah 55:11 declares, So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

But that said, one must still underscore that the Roman Church of today is still Tridentine Catholicism in theological essence.  The better spirit of gentleness does not redefine the doctrines espoused and taught by the Catholic clergy.  Indeed, the Vatican II explicitly confesses its loyalty following faithfully the teaching of previous councils.[4]

Beneath the nicety of language and camaraderie, the fight of the Reformation is to persist.  We now have more than church doors to post evangelical conviction.  As Robert Reymond challenges, Such a reformation can and will come only through public doctrinal conflict with Rome, openly pitting both in books, monographs, and pamphlets, and in sermons from the pulpit, first, the carefully exegeted, hermeneutically sound salvific teaching and world-and-life view of Holy Scripture against the superstitions and idolatries of Roman Catholic Tradition, and second, a sound knowledge of Rome’s historical origins against its pretensions. Protestants should not be afraid of such conflict, for the theological genius of the Reformation is really a summons to return to the simplicity of the apostolic gospel.[5]

 

Reformation is needed by contemporary Evangelicalism

While professing to be heirs of the 16th century Reformation, contemporary Evangelicalism is the product of the 20th century compromises, made sophisticated by 21st century technology.  While the Reformation sola’s are professed confessionally, they are compromised in church life and practice.

Professing Sola Scriptura, there is so much evangelical practice that cannot be explained by Scripture.  From rampant decisionism in evangelism, to man-centred entertainment in worship, there is a dictating voice other than the Word of God.  There is a shallowness even in affirming Sola Gratia that is understood no more than a contrast with salvation-by-works.  But the Reformers meant so much more of grace than this.  Sola Fide has suffered from reductionism that transforms it into a formula step, and removes its vital fruit of sanctification.  As to Solus Christus, one can only repeat Luther’s complaint against the teachers of his day, They say Cross! Cross! when there is no Cross!  The Cross of Christ has been distorted and displaced from its centrality and orthodoxy, to yield to marketing the church and therapeutic spirituality.

With all this defection from Reformation sola’s, where can there be Soli Deo Gloria?  One must begin to weep for evangelicalism.  Those that should be most forward in confessing the legacy of the Reformation are leading in the travesty of its most critical content.  There is a need to refresh the conviction that set aglow the Reformation hope: Justificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae – Justification is the article of a standing or falling church!

 

Let the sound of the nail on the door of the Wittenberg Church on that morning of October 31, 1517 awaken yet again today’s churches from their complacent stupor.  As Michael Horton puts it, If we are convinced that the Protestant Reformation was the greatest recovery of the gospel since the time of the apostles and that it left us with a treasure whose riches await rediscovery by a new generation, then surely a new reformation represents a goal for us… We are not only confessional (that is bound to believe, preach, and teach that which our confessions set forth), but confessing.  It is not merely a commitment to a past fidelity, although it is that, but it is also our confession in this time and place.  Our world, surrounded by new fears and false hopes, requires a new confession – not new in its message, but fresh in its delivery.[6]

What the Reformer John Calvin asserted is needed today: The excellence of the Church does not consist in multitude but in purity.

 Fight the good fight of the faith! (1 Timothy 6:12).

 Soli Deo Gloria!

 

[1] John Whitney Hall (ed.), History of the World: From Earliest Times to the Present; (JG Press, 2013): 316

[2] Matthew Barret (ed.), Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary: 44-45

[3] Dei Verbum VI. 22

[4] Lumen Gentium I. 1

[5] Robert Reymond, The Reformation’s Conflict with Rome – Why it must continue: 129

[6] Michael Horton “The Sola’s of the Reformation” from James Boice and Benjamin Sasse (ed.), Here We Stand – A Call from Confessing Evangelicals: 103

Violent Crimes

ViolentCrimes

It is difficult to restrain empathetic tears as one watches the grief of the family of Horatio “Atio” Castillo III – the victim who died from hazing by “welcoming” brods of the Aegis Juris fraternity.  It is more than anomalous that members of this frat are made up of law students, with alumni officers already well ensconced in high legal positions.  These fraternity members will someday constitute defenders and prosecutors, maybe even judges, for the cause of justice in society.  For this thought alone, one may weep for his country.

Violent crime affects everyone – the victims, most obviously; the criminal, the public, whose sense of safety is diminished; and yes, even presidents.  Christians would do well to invoke the Father’s protection; but we all know that Christians are not guaranteed safety from crime.  Yes, in fact, even Christians have fallen victims to violence.  But what explains the incidence of violence in society?[1]  Or to put it in the pained query of German-American psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Why is man the only creature who kills and tortures his own without reason?

In his massive A Criminal History of Mankind, Colin Wilson observes,

Most animals feel a specific prohibition about killing their own kind.  If two animals are fighting, and one of them wished to surrender, it only has to roll on its back and show its stomach; the other animal then becomes incapable of continuing to attack.  Man is the only creature who lacks this built-in mechanism.[2]

Some experts explore the answer as lying in the misfortunes of human evolution.  One theory advanced the ‘hunting hypothesis’ propounding that man became man because he lived by killing.  Still another sees it in the ‘romantic theory of evolution’ in which competition for females led to violent show-offs.  And there are more.  But none is remotely acceptable to Christian thinking, however,  for how can the natural selection process from apes to homo erectus explain a Charles Manson?

Today’s criminologists have more plausible causes.  Two of these have become very common explanations for the incidence of violence.  The first treats it as psychological – as lack of self-esteem; the other, as sociological – as an issue of poverty.

The cause of low self-esteem can be anything from childhood ordeal to junk food overload.  What it does is to provide something to blame outside of the offender.  This is the victimization of the violent.  By making the criminal a victim himself, his guilt is expunged.

 

The Violent has Low Self-Esteem?

Since Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) developed his hierarchy of needs, it has become a choice handle for human behaviour.  It provides a much more ‘human’ explanation for action than the old arousal-and-drive theory.  In Maslow’s hierarchy, self-esteem occupies a central place as a step to self-actualization.[3]  Social-learning theorists define self-esteem as a personal worth or worthiness.  It is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.  The social bearing of this is deemed obvious.  A person of high self-esteem would want to be respected which he gains by way of reciprocation of respect to others.  Such a person would hardly become criminal material.

The flip side of this is to find in low self-esteem the catch basin explanation for bad behaviour.  Whether the black sheep of the family, or the dimwit of the classroom, they are viewed as having low self-esteem.  And thus, the miscreants and deviants of society must be so – of low self-esteem.  The cause of low self-esteem can be anything from childhood ordeal to junk food overload.  What it does is to provide something to blame outside of the offender.  This is the victimization of the violent.  By making the criminal a victim himself, his guilt is expunged.  John MacArthur, in The Vanishing Conscience, documents cases where the offender, citing victimization, has the case revoked, diminished, or even rewarded![4]

  • A man committing burglary was injured by the store owner. The owner was forced by the jury to pay a large settlement for injuring the burglar who was deemed a victim of his economic disadvantages.
  • Bernard McCummings mugged an elderly New York man in the subway. McCummings was shot while fleeing.  Permanently paralyzed, he sued and won $4.8 million in compensation from the New York Transit Authority
  • A San Francisco City supervisor claimed he murdered a fellow supervisor and Mayor George Moscone because too much junk food – especially Hostess Twinkies – made him act irrationally. His charge was reduced.  Thus was born the famous ‘Twinkie’ defense.
  • Richard Berendzen, president of American University in Washington, D.C., was caught making obscene phone calls to women. Claiming he was a victim of child abuse, he received a suspended sentence, and negotiated a million-dollar severance package from the university.

Low self-esteem is not an acceptable explanation for violence.  Moral accountability is basic in the Christian view of man.  He is responsible for his moral actions for they are exercised by his free agency.  This responsibility translates into the reality of accountability – ultimately to God as Judge.  In the case of violent crimes, there is accountability to the state.

 

What cases like the foregoing reveal is the denial of guilt that criminal actions incur once victimization is successfully marshaled as defense.  This is what the psychological construct of low self-esteem affords.  The Christian must see this as militating against his position on sin and guilt.  Sin must not be dismissed by turning it into a disease; guilt is not a psychological syndrome.  But sadly, this is where many discourses, that claim to be Christian, are going.  MacArthur observes,

These days, when sinners seek help from churches and other Christian agencies, they are likely to be told that their problem is some emotional disorder or psychological syndrome.  They might be encouraged to forgive themselves and told they ought to have more self-love and self-esteem.  They are not as likely to hear that they must repent and humbly seek God’s forgiveness in Christ.  That is such an extraordinary change of direction for the church that even secular observers have noticed it.[5]

As popular as this explanation of violent crime being caused by low self-esteem, no serious study proves the correlation.  Paul Vitz explains,

What is wrong with the concept of self-esteem?  Lots – and it is fundamental in nature.  There have been thousands of psychological studies on self-esteem.  Often the term self-esteem is muddled in confusion as it becomes a label for such various aspects as self-image, self-acceptance, self-worth, self-trust, or self-love.  The bottom line is that no agreed-upon definition or agreed-upon measure of self-esteem exists, and whatever it is, no reliable evidence supports self-esteem scores meaning much at all anyway.  There is no evidence that high self-esteem reliably causes anything – indeed lots of people with little of it have achieved a great deal in one dimension or another.[6]

He cites a 1989 study of mathematical skills which compared students in eight different countries:

American students ranked lowest in mathematical competence and Korean students ranked highest.  But the researchers also asked students to rate how good they were at mathematics.  The Americans ranked highest in self-judged mathematical ability, while Koreans ranked lowest.  Mathematical self-esteem had an inverse relation to mathematical accomplishment!  This is certainly an example of a ‘feel good’ psychology keeping students from an accurate perception of reality.  The self-esteem theory predicts that only those who feel good about themselves will do well – which is supposedly why all students need self-esteem – but in fact feeling good about yourself may simply make you over-confident, narcissistic, and unable to work hard.

This leads Vitz to conclude:

I am not implying that high self-esteem is always negatively related to accomplishment.  Rather, the research shows that measures of self-esteem have no reliable relationship to behavior, either positive or negative.  In part, this is simply because life is too complicated for so simple a notion to be of much use.[7]

To the Christian, low self-esteem is not an acceptable explanation for violence.  Moral accountability is basic in the Christian view of man.  He is responsible for his moral actions for they are exercised by his free agency.  This responsibility translates into the reality of accountability – ultimately to God as Judge.  In the case of violent crimes, there is accountability to the state.  The enforcer of law in the state is considered by Paul as God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).

The Violent Lacks Money?

Another very common explanation for propensity to violence is poverty.  A hungry stomach knows no law!, so declared former president Joseph Estrada.  Lacking the wherewithal for his basic needs, a man might resort to crime, theft being the most obvious option – and from ordinary crime, erosion into violence becomes a reality.

It must be said that even Scriptures observe the correlation between poverty and theft, in particular.  As Proverbs 6:30, 31 puts it:

People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,

But if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house.

 

Compassion to the poor must have with it a respect for their human dignity.  To say that being poor makes one more vulnerable to violence is an unacceptable contempt.  It is an insult to many poor people who earn an honest living in daily grind.  It also overlooks the criminal schemes of the wealthy at the expense of others just because they have the means.

 

Clearly here, while the correlation is acknowledged, but accountability is not removed.  When caught, the penalty of the law applies to the ‘poor’ thief.  But theft by a hungry individual is a far cry from a shooting rampage by a drug-crazed gunman which leaves several fatalities of innocent victims.  Somewhere along the gunman’s erosion to violence, a choice that was free, but immoral, was made – such as the use of drugs.

The Christian must be sensitive to the problem of poverty.  The Church must take seriously its mandate of benevolence to the poor and needy.  This was the one reminder to Paul and his mission team when the Jerusalem apostles extended their hand of fellowship: Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal 2:10).  We must reflect the compassion of our Saviour to the needy.  See this compassion in our Lord’s words to his disciples in Matthew 15:32:

I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.

But compassion to the poor must have with it a respect for their human dignity.  To say that being poor makes one more vulnerable to violence is an unacceptable contempt.  It is an insult to many poor people who earn an honest living in daily grind.  It also overlooks the criminal schemes of the wealthy at the expense of others just because they have the means.

Certainly, there are those who are poor because of their irresponsibility.  But one big issue that we must not forget is the social structure that creates oppression of the poor.  Many are poor because they are powerless.  Much of poverty, in sum, is an issue of social justice.  John Stott correctly notes:

It was clearly recognized in the OT that poverty does not normally just happen.  Although sometimes it was due to personal sin or national disobedience, and to God’s judgment on them, it was usually due to the sins of others, that is, to a situation of social injustice, which easily deteriorated because the poor were not in a position to change it.  We do not understand the OT teaching on this subject unless we see how frequently poverty and powerlessness were bracketed.[8]

It is not lack of money but love of money that is considered a root of all kinds of evils.  This love of money can be in the heart of a poor man who mugs someone to obtain money; just as much in the heart of a millionaire swindling clients of their precious resources.  It is not poverty that is behind violence; it is covetousness!

 

There is one sense, though, where money is very much related to crime and violence.  Scriptures teach this:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.  1 Timothy 6:9-10

It is not lack of money but love of money that is considered a root of all kinds of evils.  This love of money can be in the heart of a poor man who mugs someone to obtain money; just as much in the heart of a millionaire swindling clients of their precious resources.  It is not poverty that is behind violence; it is covetousness!  This is consistent with James’ indictment of the filthy rich:

You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.         James 5:5-6

 

Capital punishment is society’s total rejection of the violent – forfeiture of life.  It rests on the highest view of the human creation – “in the image of God.”  Combining these two, a God-oriented view of man and a judicial punishment of the offender, the human society can still be decently liveable even in the presence of the violent. God Himself gives the means of checking violence. Unfortunately, on both these counts, human society is in retrogress.

 

Response to Violence

Violence in our generation is not anything new though, definitely the weapons are new; the media coverage, unprecedented.  But violence is the story of world history since time immemorial.  Nero’s cruelty against christians at how he made human torches of them would make the stomach turn.  Rome itself would be at the receiving end of an ancient terror attack from the army of the Visigoths.  The Crusades of the Medieval period that sought to regain control of the Holy City of Jerusalem from the Muslims were littered with atrocities in the name of the christian religion.  Osama Bin Laden is just our generation’s contribution to the Hall of the Infamous that includes Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler.  Different personalities and periods with different motivations – but all notable for their terror and violence.  The record of history reveals a world of violence.

After the very first act of violence when a brother killed his own, the world steadily eroded into a violent planet.  At one point it turned so violent that it needed God’s intervention through the Flood.  “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Genesis 6:11).  The world, in effect, was given a new starting point.  In this new start, God gave Noah an institution that was meant to curb violence in the human community.  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6).  The strict implementation of this principle holds the secret to preserving justice in society.  Capital punishment is society’s total rejection of the violent – forfeiture of life.  It rests on the highest view of the human creation – “in the image of God.”  Combining these two, a God-oriented view of man and a judicial punishment of the offender, the human society can still be decently liveable even in the presence of the violent. God Himself gives the means of checking violence.

Unfortunately, on both these counts, human society is in retrogress.  Claiming progressive views, many have espoused ideas of humanity that see man basically as biological, or at best, a social function.  A happenstance in a story of survival and evolution.  The view that man is basically religious and made for God is now branded as crude and fundamentalist – equivalent of extremist.  No wonder that out of the same progressive views the implementation of justice as God required has been softened.  Punishment is now too strong a word.  Everything is now remedial and corrective. Nothing about just vindication.  It is a world that has departed from God, and reshaped justice into a soft mold.  In that world, violence thrives.

Violence is part of the depravity of man.  In Paul’s catalogue of human sinfulness, he quotes from the Old Testament to describe sinners: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways” (Romans 3:15, 16).  That violent nature led those terrorists in the horrific sequence of September 11.  But in a much smaller scale, we see the violent nature in daily occurrence.  Murder. . . Cursing. . . Hazing.

The church is sent to such a violent world with a gospel of peace and reconciliation.  It is a call that is first and foremost Godward before it is social for man’s original alienation is from his Creator and God.  Only in the restored relationship with God will the wall of partition that exists between men be broken down.  The Church is the manifestation of this new humanity reconciled to one another because they are reconciled to God.  For as long as the Lord preserves a faithful church on earth, there is hope for the prophetic vision: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Endnotes

1       This article does not intend to treat crime in its legal framework, but to focus on the act of violence

2       Colin Wilson, A Criminal History of Mankind (Mercury Books;2005): p. 106

3       Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (1954)

4       John MacArthur, Jr., The Vanishing Conscience (Word Pub.; 1995):pp. 21ff

5       MacArthur, 29

6       Paul Vitz, “Leaving Psychology Behind” from Os Guinness & John Seel (ed.), No God But God: 97

7       ibid

8       John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Marshalls; 1984): p. 218

Creation Groans

Creation GroansAn intensity 7.1 earthquake in Mexico left scores of structures in rubble with hundreds of people dead and still counting.  This came in the wake of two consecutive category five hurricanes that battered the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and southern parts of the United States.

What are Christians to make of this?

Judgment on the Sinful?

There is an answer that gets articulated easily by preachers: these natural disasters are God’s judgment on sinful people.  Something like Sodom and Gomorrah reenacted, though in miniature.  This explanation is not to be dismissed.  It acknowledges God’s sovereign control of natural forces.  However, this explanation is not complete; and when expressed easily, almost gloatingly, it is cruel.  There is a school of thought that almost welcomes such tragedies as signs of the nearness of Christ’s Second Coming and the Judgment Day!

One cannot make an equation of the destructive force of nature in proportion to the sinfulness of its victims.  The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed thousands in Aceh, Sri Lanka, India – even thousands of tourists from Sweden – yet it did not reach the shore of the Philippines.  Is it because we were a better people?  Not very likely!

God lost control?

At the opposite end are those who stagger from the sheer destruction of these natural disasters; and they dismiss any idea that God could have anything to do with them.  It has to be beneath God to bring about such disasters that victimize people so indiscriminately.  There was the picture of a wailing mother over her dead baby by her lap.  How could any of these be of divine design?  The question is poignant, and reveals the edge of disbelief.  To disbelieve in any divine participation in such disasters is the only way for some to retain belief in God at all.  Natural disasters are simply a case of the earth gone mad beyond control.  No one could have prevented them – much less Someone causing them!

But the Scriptures are clear.  They reveal not only the overall control of God, but His intimate involvement with His natural creation.

When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens,

And he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth.

He makes lightning for the rain,

and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses.

Jeremiah 10:13

 

Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?

He who brings out their host by number,

calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might,

and because he is strong in power not one is missing.

Isaiah 40:26

 

Whatever the LORD pleases, he does,

in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.

He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,

who makes lightnings for the rain

and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.

Psalm 135:6-7

Indeed, nature has its laws, but God is directly involved in the operative movements of those laws.  They were not abandoned by God like a watchmaker might abandon his timepiece to function all by itself.  Nothing moves in creation, but what God in His omnipotent control has willed.  Yes, including disasters.

I form light and create darkness,

I make well-being and create calamity,

I am the LORD, who does all these things.

Isaiah 45:7

But is this not exactly the view that creates the poignant question we asked?  How could He?

Groaning for Redemption

Paul reveals the condition of creation as one of groaning.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:20-22)

Creation groans.  This is the distinctly biblical view of natural disasters.  The fall of man into sin has involved a cosmic dimension.  Nature is not functioning in its unspoiled original design.  There is disrepair in nature, and that disrepair manifests itself periodically in destructive forces.  Those forces, originally designed to make life perfect in Edenic earth, now transform into calamities.  The rains that are essential to vegetation now bring killer floods.  The seabed is the earth’s most secure foundation.  But on December 26, 2004 the Indian Plate moved several meters to slide under Sumatra, part of the Eurasian Plate, resulting in the worst tsunami in recorded history.  The earth groaned.  Last November 8, 2013, winds packing speed of 315 kms/hour became supertyphoon Haian – the strongest typhoon that made landfall on the Philippine Islands.  Creation groaned.

Ironically, it is this view of creation that breeds positive hope for Paul – and should for Christians.  As Paul puts it, the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  Creation is on the way to redemption.  The earth will have its complete and perfect repair.  In unfathomable wisdom, hope is animated by the misery that disaster brings, that amidst the chaos, we hope for the final and perfect order.  Well did John Calvin weigh the impact of misery upon Christian hope:

Whatever kind of tribulation presses upon us, we must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life. For since God knows best how much we are inclined by nature to a brutish love of this world, he uses the fittest means to draw us back and to shake off our sluggishness, lest we cleave too tenaciously to that love… To counter this evil the Lord instructs his followers in the vanity of the present life by continual proof of its miseries.[1]

Meanwhile, nature will have its groaning period.  At such times, it is comforting to know that humanity is not left completely at the mercy of natural forces.  To those on the edge of disbelief, consider this: Is it any more comforting to believe that nature is going mad at times of disaster?  To the man of faith, belief in the God behind the disasters will yet be his sustaining hold when such disasters strike.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea

Come, behold the works of the LORD,

how he has brought desolations on the earth.

Psalm 46:2, 8

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: III. 9. 1