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

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