Friday, 29 October 2010

How can each Divine Person be fully God?

Last time we looked at the claim that the Trinity is a contradictory concept because it is impossible for God to be 'three in one'. Now it's time to look at another question relating to the doctrine's logical coreherence; how is it possible for each divine person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be fully God, simulatenously and eternally?

Jimbo: Don't think I'm through with your Trinitarianism yet, Benny. How is it possible for each Divine Person to be fully God?
Benny: Well why exactly do you think it's impossible?
Jimbo: Hah! Remember last time when you used ants to illustrate how the Trinity can be three in one?
Benny: Yeah ...
Jimbo: Well that same illustration will now support MY argument. We both agreed that thousands of ants can be one colony. But we surely can't say that each of those individual ants is a full colony can we? For each individual ant is just that, one ant - a part of the whole. 

Jimbo's response is a good lesson in how analogies have limited use! The ant/colony illustration certainly does break down when trying to explain the full deity of each divine person in the Trinity. Let's bring up the "being" and "person" distinction we talked about last time. There are different sorts of beings, like ants, horses, tigers etc. I am a particular being of the sort known as 'human'. I am also a person, and I am the only person in this particular being. But with God it's different. God is a divine being, and unlike with humans, God has three persons in one being, not just one person in one being. Think of them as three centres of consciousness.  

How does this help us? Well, I can say that I am fully human. I lack no feature that is essential for humanity. And each divine person can say "I am fully divine. I lack no feature that is essential for God-ness." The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three parts that make up a whole. They are three persons who share a divine existence. There is no part of the divine being that is just the Father's, or just the Son's. Each person has the full divine being. Hence each person is fully God.

Handling the Trinity can be quite tricky at first but it eventually becomes clearer!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

How can God be three in one?

Christians have a rather unique belief about what God is like. A belief that is often misunderstood by both Christians and skeptics alike. It's the belief in the divine Trinity. Attacks on this doctrine generally come in two different types. One attack consists of the claim that the Christian's own Scriptures do not actually teach the concept of the Trinity. The other questions whether the Trinity is a logically coherent concept. I don't believe either attack succeeds, but I want to focus in the next couple entries on showing that the Trinity is a logically coherent concept.

How can God be three in one?

We better start by explaining what exactly the doctrine of the Trinity is. Wayne Grudem, in his 'Systematic Theology', sums up orthodox Trinitarian belief in this statement; "God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God."

People who have some vague familiarity with the Trinity might think that there is a problem with the claim that God is three in one. They say that's a contradiction. But it's only a contradiction if the claim is that God is one and three of the same thing...

Jimbo: Benny, Benny, Benny ... I know I haven't had much success refuting your theism. But I know one thing I can refute about your specific brand of theism! Lad, the doctrine of the Trinity is logically contradictory!
Benny: That's a strong claim mate. Why do you think that?
Jimbo: Because God can't be three and one! That's clearly impossible.
Benny: Do you think thousands of ants can also be one colony?
Jimbo: Yes, of course ...
Benny: But it would be impossible for a thousand ants to be just one ant, right?
Jimbo: Duh!
Benny: It's the same with the Trinity. We aren't claiming that God is three Gods and one God. We are claiming God is three PERSONS in one God.

We can clarify by saying that God is three persons in one being. I, as a human, am one being. But I, Martin, am the only person within this being. God however, has three persons in the one divine being. It is hard to imagine but it isn't logically impossible! And it's certainly pretty cool, at least in my opinion. Next entry will discuss another potential 'logical issue' with the Trinity.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Relay Update: 26/10/10

What is Relay? Relay is a discipleship program I'm doing this year and you can read all about it here. I'll be updating the blog from time to time with updates for all the people partnering with me during the year. And this is one of those updates!

First of all, I've really got to thank you for your generous donations in the past couple months. Thanks to you I've been able to pay my rent, eat, travel to my CUs, buy books for study and just live really. I'd been really stressed about whether I'd have the money to get by and you've blessed me ENORMOUSLY. Thank you so very much. And thank you to everyone who's been praying for me and the work of the CU's. Our work is only fruitful because of God's power.

So what's actually been going on?

Well term is in full swing now. The Freshers' weeks are over and students are settling into their weekly routines. Many of the new students who came to CU right at the start have stuck around and for that we're all really thankful! And as the students have acquired a sense of normality in their lives, so have I.

Every week I'm meeting with students to study the Bible with them and encourage them to live for God on campus. I'm going through Romans with some of the freshers and 2 Timothy with a couple of the older students. It's been great fun and I really feel excited about the leadership potential in these guys! We're also just starting to read Amy Orr-Ewing's "Why Trust The Bible?" which is an accessible but substantial defence of the Bible's veracity. Hopefully we will all grow in confidence and love for the truth we proclaim.

In terms of my own personal study, like all the other Relay workers I've been looking at the doctrine of the Trinity. It was great to look at it in more depth as in the process I was able to elucidate and wrestle with some of the potential logical inconsistencies I saw in the doctrine. I am now convinced the nature of the God-head can be expressed in a logically coherent way, thankfully! It is also one of the coolest doctrines in Christian theology, I gotta say. It's also been an appropriate topic to study as myself and Jason have been meeting up with some Mormons for the last couple weeks. This month I'm going to be looking at the nature of God's sovereignty. I approach the topic as someone with very little sympathy towards Calvinism, but other than that I'm not sure where I stand so it should be interesting! I attended a day conference on Open Theism (a particular belief about God's sovereignty that emphasises human freedom) this Saturday just gone, which was a good event to start thinking about this sort of thing.

In terms of my own elective study I've been cracking on with looking at what the Bible says about the whole creation/evolution debate. I've read some very persuasive and also challenging stuff from a couple different perspectives. I have a lot to think about the moment and shall divulge a bit more once I've got my head around some things.

Since I last updated I've also given a talk on "Surviving As A Student" to both Stafford and Buxton CUs. Both times went reasonably well (I think!) and taught me some stuff on how to improve my talks. I've also been planning and talking to CU committee people about running a weekly apologetics workshop called 'Equip'. The first session in Stoke is set to begin on November 1st. Hopefully it won't be too far behind in Keele. I've also met with the university Chaplain, Benedict, who has been keen to start a monthly open discussion group on matters pertaining to the big questions in life, which will also kick off in November. I look forward to updating you on how all that goes!

I hope you can see that there's a lot of exciting stuff going on with much to pray for. I'd love it if you could pray for some of the following things ...

~ Please thank God for the work he is doing through and amongst Stoke and Keele CUs.
~ Please pray that I would lead 'Equip' with wisdom and that people attend and benefit from it.
~ Please pray that the CU leaders would continue to act toward, and communicate to their members, a missional vision.
~ Please pray that I would tackle difficult questons arising from my study with courage and wisdom.
~ Please pray that God would continue to provide for me financially.

If you’ve offered to support me financially and I’ve given you a form that you haven’t sent off yet, please send it! =) I know it is easy to forget to do these things (I’m terrible with forms), but I really do rely on your donations so please send it off as soon as you can. If you’ve lost the form or you want to start supporting me financially but haven’t got one, you can download it at www.uccf.org.uk/relay/give-to-relay-workers.htm It would be great if you could donate £5-20 a month to me.

Thanks so much again for your support and I hope you've been encouraged through seeing what your money and prayers contribute toward.

Much love,

Martin

Sunday, 24 October 2010

What's our focus?

Sometimes I choose not to attend my regular church on a Sunday to see what other local churches are like. I usually leave an 'alien' church with a better appreciation of the variety and family unity of the Christian community. However after one of my visits to a local church I left deeply concerned about their priorities and their 'spiritual health'. I felt like I'd witnessed first hand something from America that I'd only before read about or seen on TV. What had angered me from afar was now visible right before my eyes. While the underlying attitude of this church has not been entirely absent from other churches I've visited, never had I seen it manifested so fully. It is an attitude that Christians must stand firm against for its results are disastrous.

Entertainment =/= Mature discipleship

While one can make the mistake of not communicating in an engaging way, we must utterly resist the temptation to make entertainment the priority of a Sunday morning. Our culture is entertainment mad, and while relying on flashy media, energetic songs and other such stimulations might bring in lots of numbers it does absolutely nothing to help people become mature disciples of Jesus who will follow him their whole lives. A focus on games and emotional experiences centred on ourselves might keep the kids interested but without substance what are they going to do when they go to university and someone brings 'The God Delusion' their way? Neglect proper teaching of doctrine and reasons to believe and people's faith will be based on emotional highs that result in doubt when one isn't 'feeling so good'.

Attractiveness and Comfort =/= Authentic Christianity

Why did Jesus die on the cross for us? To atone for our sins. He did not die for us primarily so that we would have successful, worry free lives. We must resist the temptation to distort the Christian message - the gospel - so that it becomes about what 'stuff' Jesus can give us. The focus of the gospel isn't on giving us meaningful, whole lives, although that is a wondrous outcome. It is about being saved from the wrath of God incurred by our own sin. Making the focus anything else is highly dangerous. We start to see ourselves not as undeserving sinners, mercifully saved and loved by a gracious God, but as victims who are owed God's service. God's job becomes one of fixing our lives. We become confused when life is tough and see our negative life circumstances as evidence of God's neglect or even absence. We may feel guilty or inadequate because we don't feel good like we think we should. But the Bible promises us hard times in numerous places. Jesus said that here on earth we will have tribulation (John 16:33). Paul said that all who want to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). We must daily bear our crosses.

The gospel has never been intended towards producing comfort, nor is its message comfortable. It was an offensive message back in 1st century AD and much of it is now. If you want to concentrate on mass appeal how will you preach God's wrath? How will you tell people that they deserve death before a holy God? There is no good news without the bad news.

Let us not judge our church's success on the numbers it pulls in. Let us judge it rather on how faithful it is being to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Reject an attitude of favouring entertainment over substance.

I invite you to read some similar reflections along with a strategy for improvement, over here.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Dawkins on "what if you're wrong?"

There's a video I've come across a couple times now where Richard Dawkins, Britian's famous outspoken atheist, answers the question "what if you're wrong?" That is, what if he's wrong about atheism. You can watch it over here (apologies for any profanity or excessive stupidity in the comments section). In his response Dawkins makes a popular objection to the rationality of religious belief that is worth looking at.

Firstly I want to say that Dawkins got one thing right. It is possible that we're wrong about the non-existence of the flying spaghetti monster. It is possible that we're wrong about tons of stuff. That's because few items of our knowledge are logically necessary. Even your belief that you are reading a blog could be mistaken. It is logically possible that an alien is tapping into your brain causing you to think you're reading a blog when in fact you are not. But we generally don't worry about the things we could possibly be wrong about because we feel that while the possibility exists, it is quite unlikely for we have good reasons to believe what we do, and to doubt these things is not rationality but insanity. Had Dawkins left it at that he would have answered the question adequately. However he kept going and said some rather foolish things.

He presumes that his questioner was brought up in a Christian home, and that this is the reason for her Christian belief. Why does he assume that people only persist in religious beliefs because they are brought up with them? I'm a Christian and I was not brought up to believe the Bible or go to church. I was an agnostic and hostile to Christianity till I was 19. I know plenty of other people who are Christians from non-Christian backgrounds. Spend some time asking around in my church and you'll find these people. Has Dawkins not met any such Christians? Not only that, but talk to most any adult Christian who was brought up in a Christian home and they'll tell you of a time when they had to think through and choose the faith for themselves. Does he honestly think that people only continue to believe in Christianity based on the arbitrary conditions of their upbringing? As someone who has been involved with Christians at university for over three years, let me tell you, any students who do believe primarily because they were brought up to do so either quickly abandon those beliefs when they start their adult life at uni, or have a hard time of questioning after which they are usually far stronger, having really found the faith for themselves. Dawkins' views on this are so patently false that I wonder how Dawkins, who claims to be an authority on religion, can sincerely believe it. He can't have talked to many Christians.

Now if you're brought up in say, a Muslim country, are you more likely to believe in Islam than Christianity? Yes, probably. You'll probably have less access to Christian people and resources which might otherwise influence you. But if you believed in Islam in this scenario, would your beliefs necessarily be arbitrary? I see no reason to think so and certainly Dawkins hasn't provided one. Besides, what of Dawkins' own belief that religious choice is dependant upon upbringing? Is this belief not more likely to be held in modern pluralist Britain, than in a Muslim country? Undoubtedly. Does this alone make Dawkins' belief irrational? He would of course have to say no. Double standard much?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Does evolution disprove God? (3)

In this entry we're finally finishing our look at the relation between evolution and belief in God. In the previous entry I argued that evolution need not be a stumbling block to believing in bare bones theism. Now I'm going to see what challenges evolution poses to specifically Christian theism. Or at least, to a Christian theism that believes the Bible to be true in everything it intends to teach. (There are a number of Christians who don't feel that their Christianity hinges on the full truthfulness of the Bible. Whether or not that position is defendable is not the focus of this entry).

So what's the problem?

When we pose the question of whether evolution and the Bible can be in accordance with each other, we need to figure out what exactly it is that the Bible teaches on these sorts of matters. I'm sure many people who tout evolution as their reason for disbelieving the Bible haven't even read the alleged problem passages, let alone studied them in depth. Now there are a few passages that might be in conflict with some aspect of the evolutionary narrative, but most see Genesis chapter 1 as the real centre of importance. Give it a read before you continue.

You can probably see quite easily why people regard the text as being incompatible with evolution. It describes creation as having taken place in 6 days not millions of years. It seems to describe an instantaneous creation of life, not a gradual process, and in fact the order of creation differs from the evolutionary timeline. And how could creation be declared good when there was animal death and suffering? Tricky ...

Take a deeper look

These sorts of ojections naturally arise from a casual reading of Genesis. But sometimes what we see as the obvious reading of a text differs radically from the author's own intended meaning for the text. Remember, the meaning of a text is set by the author's intent for it at the time of writing (see here). Often our reading of the Bible is skewed when we assume that the authors thought in basically the same ways that we do as modern westerners.

So what assumptions are we bringing to the table that might not have been shared by the author of Genesis? Well, for one, that the act of creation is about material processes. Did you notice that in verse 2 the earth is described as formless and empty? Did you notice that in verses 8-10 God didn't actually create anything material? This is because the people in this time saw creation as the establishment of functions not as the process of material moulding. The creation narrative describes how the functionless, formless, empty earth becomes suited to human living by God ordering the cosmos. John Walton brilliantly demonstrates this in his book 'The Lost World of Genesis One'.

When we realise that Genesis 1 just isn't talking about material origins, we are provided with a plausible interpretation that could eliminates our issues. Genesis isn't saying that God formed the materials of the universe in only 6 days. It isn't saying that God formed the materials of living things in only 6 days. It isn't saying that God formed the materials of livings things in a specific order. It just isn't talking about material origins. With this context in mind we can reasonable argue that when God declares creation "good", he is not making a moral statement but a statement about the universe's proper functioning.

Sorted?

We're not quite there yet. After all a critic could claim that if nothing material happened in the 6 creation days, God wouldn't really have done much of anything during that time. This might be a fair point, though a lot hinges on what we perceive as being a meaningful activity which again ties into our assumptions about what a creative act is. At the very least it should be obvious that with a text that has a cultural backdrop so far removed from our own, we cannot just read it with modern western eyes and assume we've got its message right.

During this academic year I'm going to be doing some research into what Genesis and other evolution-relevant texts are saying as the fulfillment of my elective study in the Relay program I'm involved in. My aim is to find out what a Bible-believing Christian is actually committed to in terms of evolution and the age of the earth. I shall no doubt report some of my findings later in the year.