Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Why study Leviticus?

How's that for a title sure to chase away readers? Who wants to study Leviticus? Well, actually, I do!

There are many reasons to study Leviticus, but time and space don't allow me to probe them all. I will, however, share one good reason: because in his first epistle, the apostle Peter relies on it to explain what holiness is.

When a New Testament writer uses an Old Testament reference, we should stop and ask ourselves why. How is he using that Old Testament citation to build his teaching? What does the reference say about the unity of the two testaments? It's a time in our study when we must stop and think about what lies behind the author's purpose.

In the midst of an exhortation to his readers to prepare themselves for action, and to set their hopes on the revelation of Christ, Peter tells them to be holy in their conduct (I Pet. 1:13-15). And why ought they to be holy? Because God is holy. To lend support to his exhortation, he quotes Leviticus 19:2. That phrase "be holy" occurs a few times in Leviticus.

Leviticus 11 deals with the purity laws referring to food. At the end of this passage, the writer concludes by giving a call to the people to consecrate themselves for holiness by avoiding that which is unclean. The reference in Lev. 19:2 opens a section within the "Holiness Code" which encompasses chapters 17-24. In Lev. 19, the writer is calling people to demonstrate holiness in their relationships with other people. Later in Lev. 20:26, the writer adds the reminder that their holiness is expected because of what God has done for Israel, specifically, deliverance from Egypt (Ex 19:4-6). Holiness is in response to a covenant which establishes them as "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Lev. 19:6), the same phrases which Peter uses in his letter. A call to holiness is part of the covenant God has made with them. So, how does holiness in Leviticus relate to Peter's audience, and ultimately, to us?

Peter's use of Leviticus is one of many references which create in this letter an overwhelmingly Jewish theme. Phrases like "the Diaspora," (I Pet. 1:1), "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (I Pet. 2:9), and the many direct citations from the Old Testament (1:15; 1:24-25; 2:6-8;3:10-12; 4:18) sound as if Peter is talking to Jews. However, scholars are agreed that Peter wrote to Gentiles. So, why is Peter using Old Testament language with Gentiles?

Peter is drawing a parallel between the Jews and the new covenant believers. While there is change in their relationship to the law, the nature of holiness has not changed. The holiness that has been established by God with his covenant people Israel is the same holiness that is expected of the new covenant people. Holiness was visible among the Jews in a lifestyle that was separate from their neighbours. They were to stand out among the pagan nations, refuse to adopt their ways, and remain faithful to their covenant God. Peter is saying that it is no different for his readers, and by extension, Christians today: we must live separate from the surrounding culture, not become like it. This was an especially appropriate message to these Gentile believers who were living with persecution and suffering (I Pet. 1:6; 4:12). The response to trials is to live as a holy people. While holiness is attained through faith in Christ, it is visible by a consecrated, separate life.

Perhaps Peter could have just come out and said this without referring to Leviticus, but by doing so, he not only gives credibility to his teaching by appealing to the Old Testament Scriptures, but he roots his teaching in the past, emphasizing the continuity of the Old and New Testaments. God's purposes have not changed. Today, with two thousand years of Christian history behind us, we take for granted the equal authority of the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures. In the early days of the church, it was not like that. The new believers had to be shown this continuity, and ultimately, the only Scriptures the New Testament writers had were the Old Testament. Basing their teaching on Scripture meant the Old Testament.

Leviticus is probably not the kind of literature we read every day. It sounds strange to our ears. Maybe we groan inwardly as we consider reading it, but when we look at it retroactively, from where we are today in the new covenant, we can see its importance. If the Old Testament Scriptures were used by the New Testament writers, we ought to pay attention to them; even Leviticus. Next time you see a New Testament author quote the Old Testament, take a moment to ask why. It will enrich your study.

Monday, July 25, 2016

On Controversy

About a year ago, my husband and I decided that should the right pharmacist job become available, I should probably take it. Not long after that, the right job opened up. I enrolled my last homeschool student in Christian school, and my family started adjusting to our new normal.

When this occurred, I was entering my 11th year of blogging. That’s a lot of content. In my case, it’s also a lot of public foolishness. I made my personal blog settings private until I had time to think about what content could stay and what needed to go. I also decided to take a break from posting here for a "couple of months." A year later, my blog is still not back up, and this is my first post.

Since one of my freelance jobs had been helping with social media and marketing for Cruciform Press, I went from constant immersion in all things social media to not looking at social media for days at a time. Controversies flared up and died out before I even knew about them.

And then, just as I was starting to contemplate blogging again, the Trinity controversy unfolded. Though this is one of the bigger debates I’ve seen in the Christian blogosphere in the past decade, it’s similar in many ways to many other disagreements I’ve seen.

Our motives are often mixed. When I blogged, I always knew some of my reasons for blogging weren’t very noble. And my reasons for going dark weren’t entirely holy, either. Stirring up controversy leads to blog hits and fame. Criticizing the wrong people might end up costing you links and endorsements. And like Paul, I’m not a good judge of myself (1 Corinthians 4:3–4), let alone everyone else. Some people are keeping quiet because they don’t have anything substantial to add to the noise. Some people are trying to preserve their platform. I have no clue who is who, so it does me no good to speculate.

People are more than their social media personas. It’s no good being well versed in theology if you’re going to be spiteful and mean about it (1 Corinthians 13:2). On the other hand, the most sincere person in the world can be sincerely wrong and lead weaker people astray. That said, our social media posts are a small snapshot of our lives. Just because someone posts a lot about a particular subject, doesn't mean that's all they think and care about. The Bible says we are to grow in love and knowledge (Ephesians 4:15). Since we have no idea what another’s motives are, and since “tone” on social media is usually subjective, we should endeavor to believe the best and focus on the ideas.

Bad theology often leads to bad practice. Notice I said often. Everybody is walking around with some bad theological ideas. We are fallible humans living in a world marred by sin. Things that would seem to be a minor issue to most of us might cause someone else to really get off in the theological weeds. Just because somebody’s a great person doesn’t mean his or her sloppy theology won’t cause someone else to go down a dangerous trail.

It’s easy to become numb to criticism. I’ve seen this happen numerous times. People who are “social-media famous” get picked at a lot. Most of these attacks are so silly they should only be ignored. Then, when a real issue is raised, it’s too easy for those being criticized to dismiss it as more of the same. We all need to do a better job picking our battles.

I still believe that social media has done far more good for me than bad. It’s led to some wonderful, real-life friendships. It’s challenged my thinking for the better on many subjects. It’s helped me keep in touch with family and friends who live far away. And yes, it’s often distracted me when I had more important things to do. But so has HGTV and the bird feeders in my back yard. Pulling back from social media and not blogging for a year didn’t magically improve my self discipline. I just found other stuff to do. We need to figure out how to do Internet debates better. But we also need to do good everywhere we can—whether that be in our virtual lives or our real ones.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Why God's Omniscience and Omnipotence Are Communicable Attributes

God's attributes are traditionally divided into two groups, at least in the theological circles I'm familiar with. He has communicable attributes, those he shares with us, and incommunicable attributes, those that belong to God alone. This system of categorizing God attributes isn’t perfect. None of God’s attributes are shared completely with us, even the ones we call communicable. And since we are made in God’s image, even his incommunicable attributes have slight human parallels. But this system, imperfect as it is, is the most common way of classifying the divine attributes, and it’s still a useful way of looking at them.

God’s incommunicable attributes are those like his aseity (or self-existence), his eternality, his immutability (or unchangeability), and his omnipresence. For the most part, the reasons these are incommunicable is self-explanatory. God’s self-existence, for instance, is nothing like our dependent existence, and in his eternality, he transcends time, while we are bound by it.
God’s omnipresence is incommunicable, too. But if all omnipresence meant was that God is "all-present"—or located in every place, omnipresence would actually be a communicable attribute. God would have unlimited location; he would be located in every place. And we would be located, too, but just in one space at a time.

But omnipresence doesn't just mean God exists everywhere. It means he is not contained in space. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” King Solomon prayed. “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27). The universe can’t hold God, not so much because it’s not big enough to hold him, but because “big enough” doesn’t apply to him. He is not spatial. In eternity past, without creation and without space (which was created by God when he created the world), God was everything he is now, omnipresence included. The universe can’t contain God because he is pure spirit. He has no physical dimensions.

Charles Spurgeon explained these two truths about the omnipresence of God—one, that he cannot be contained in space, and two, that his whole being exists everywhere—like this: “[God’s] circumference is nowhere, but his center is everywhere.”1 God relates to space like he relates to time. He acts in every moment, yet is beyond time, and he is present in every space, yet is beyond space. God transcends space just as he transcends time, so omnipresence, like his eternality, it incommunicable.

God’s communicable attributes are characteristics he shares with us as creatures made in his image. Since the fall of humankind, God’s image in us is distorted, and our ability to mirror his attributes is diminished, but it’s not completely gone. What’s more, when we believe, the Holy Spirit begins progressively restoring God’s image in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10), and as we grow more like him, we also become more capable of reflecting his communicable attributes.

For the most part, which of God’s attributes are communicable is self-explanatory, too. He is loving and we love. Yes, he loves with infinite, independent love and we love with finite, dependent love, but God loves, and in some small way, we image his love. God is holy, too, and he commands us to be holy. He is infinitely and independently holy and we can only be holy as we depend on him to make us holy, but still, when he makes us holy, we truly reflect his holiness. God's love and his holiness, then, and all the related attributes like righteousness, grace, mercy, etc., are communicable attributes.

It’s with God’s omniscience and omnipotence that classifying the attributes can get a little tricky. It may seem that omniscience should be an incommunicable attribute—after all, it starts with the omni prefix, and we certainly can’t be omni anything. But don’t be fooled by the omni in omniscience. Omni just means unlimited, and all God’s attributes, even the communicable ones, are unlimited. God’s omniscience is simply his unlimited knowledge. And it is a communicable attribute because God has also given us the ability to know. God has knowledge and so do we.

Omnipotence is another of God’s omni attributes that is communicable. Human beings have power—not, infinite power, of course, but finite power that reflects God’s infinite power in some ways. God uses his power to accomplish his purposes, and we use our physical and mental powers to achieve our purposes. Our power is finite, so we can’t do everything we want, but we do carry out plans with our power. God’s power fuels his dominion over the universe and our power fuels our God-mandated dominion over the world as his representatives. We rule God’s creation using the power he is sharing with us from his never-ending supply of power.

1] Spurgeon, Charles, “God’s Nearness to Us,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Spurgeon was paraphrasing a quote from Blaise Pascal: “Nature is an infinite sphere in which the center is everywhere, the circumference is nowhere.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What is Bible Study?

Four years ago, on my personal blog, I did a series of posts about Bible study. Recently, I had a look at those old posts, and realized that I have learned a lot since those posts. I decided I would re-visit and update those posts. 

What exactly is Bible study? The question may seem like an unnecessary one, but clarifying our terms is always helpful. What you perceive as Bible study might not be what I see it as. If you look at the massive selection of women's Bible studies available, it is evident that women are a target market for selling Bible study material. It's important to know exactly what Bible study is so that we may choose materials wisely.

I like to think of definitions in terms of what things are not. Bible study is not simply reading the Bible. While we can (and should) read the Bible like any good book, that is not studying the Bible per se. We can get a great overview by reading the Bible without delving too deeply, but that will only scratch the surface.

Bible study can be done on our own or in a group. Studying in a group is great, and if we choose to participate in a group study, we should remember that Bible study is not simply fellowship. Fellowship is involved, but in and of itself, it is not Bible study. It is also not "sharing" time.  It will involve sharing, but if all we did was share, we would soon stop learning about the Bible and just learn about each other. There is a time for that, but group studies that wander from the centrality of the text are not the best kind of Bible studies.

A helpful analogy is comparing Bible study to studying a play like Romeo and Juliet. We can read Romeo and Juliet, although it may be hard because the language is difficult. However, if we get out our dictionaries, we can muddle through and enjoy it. Perhaps we can get a version written in contemporary English to help. But that is not studying it. Studying Romeo and Juliet involves taking it apart and discovering all of the intricacies and how they work together. It means understanding why the language is different, and how Shakespeare used it. It means paying attention to the plot, the context, the characters. Ultimately, when we read it, we want to know what it means. It is the same with Bible study; a good Bible study will ultimately involve interpreting, and it takes time, thought, and practice.

With Bible study, we examine the text closely and intimately so we can understand it and ask ourselves what our response to it should be. It is a pursuit that depends on the power of the Holy Spirit, because apart from the Spirit, our understanding will suffer. And while we depend upon the Holy Spirit, we don't operate outside of our own faculties. There is nothing "unspiritual" to dig in and do the hard work of study.

Books galore are marketed to women which, while teaching biblical principles, are not Bible studies. While I have benefitted from such books, those books don't begin from the biblical text, but rather a premise decided upon by the author. They can contain a lot of biblical content, but their primary focus is not the text. There is a place for such books, but if we want to get the most out of Bible study, we should focus on the text. Of course, not all Bible studies are created equal. My preference is an inductive study. Keri Folmar, who writes excellent Bible study material, describes inductive study this way:
Inductive study happens when we read the passage in context and ask ourselves questions about the text with the purpose of deriving the meaning and significance from the text itself.
Inductive study can also be likened to putting together a puzzle. We begin with the outside framework and fill in the details once we have that framework. The various levels of context provide our framework, and we look at the details within that framework.

I can honestly say that nothing has influenced my life more than spending time learning to study God's Word. The Bible is the foundation for our lives in Christ. It is the foundation for all doctrine. We have at our disposal opportunity and resources to study, and it is a worthwhile pursuit.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

He who sits in the heavens

Due to the time constraints, this is a repost from nearly 4 years ago. But given the state of the world, I need to be reminded of this again...

Worry is one of my besetting sins. It can cover a wide range of subjects - immediate family concerns, the election in less than 2 weeks, or what's really happening in Tehran. I begin to worry because I don't like unknowns, and I don't like feeling out of control. To compensate, I often try to keep tabs on all the possible variables that could affect the outcome, deluding flattering myself into thinking that I can at least be mentally prepared for what could occur. But this is cold comfort. There are too many factors beyond my scope, and as I consider what is outside of my control, the needle on the worry meter goes up.

I have a less-than-robust background in the absolute sovereignty of God, so I could use that as an excuse. But even wholeheartedly embracing that doctrine, my thoughts of God are often "too human"1, as if He who sits in the heavens "laughs nervously and wrings His hands in confusion."

If I dig deeper, there's a showdown taking a place - a face-off between the Bible's claims of God's supremacy versus my fallible thoughts and feelings. Who do I listen to? My worries? Or do I take my soul by the scruff of the neck, so to speak, turn off the news or whatever is feeding my anxiety, and turn back to the Scriptures?  Feelings go up and down. Circumstances change for good or bad. But neither feelings or circumstances are the arbiter of truth. God's Word is, and here's what it says about His authority over all things:
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” Psalm 2: 4-6
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. 1 Chron. 29:11-13
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, Ephesians 1:11
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! Why should the nations say, "Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. Psalm 115:1-3
The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting...Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore. Psalm 93:1-2,5

From A.W. Pink:
The absolute and universal supremacy of God is plainly and positively affirmed in many scriptures... Before Him, presidents and popes, kings and emperors, are less than grasshoppers.3
God's supremacy over the works of His hands is vividly depicted in Scripture. Inanimate matter, irrational creatures, all perform their Master's bidding.4
God's supremacy is also demonstrated in His perfect rule over the wills of men... His own eternal "counsels" are accomplished to their minutest details. 5

I don't know about you, but this gives me great comfort. This answers my fear of the unknown because there are no unknowns to an omniscient God. He does not react to future events because He has already ordained what will take place by His decrees. We have a foundation that will never shift under any circumstance because we rest on the unchanging character of God Himself.

Let every man or, in this case, woman be a liar. The Lord reigns.
Here then is a resting place for the heart. Our lives are neither the product of blind fate nor the result of capricious chance, but every detail of them was ordained from all eternity and is now ordered by the living and reigning God. 6

1. The Attributes of God, Chapter 5 The Supremacy of God, A.W. Pink, Baker, 1975, pg. 28.
2. Thanks to Zack for his open theist "version" of Psalm 2:4.
3. The Attributes of God, Chapter 5 The Supremacy of God, A.W. Pink, Baker, 1975, pg. 29.
4. Ibid. pg. 30.
5. Ibid. pg. 30-31.
6. Ibid. pg. 31.