Una Guía Cristiana a la Espiritualidad ya está disponible!

Una Guia Cristian a la EspiritualidadSpanish Edition of A Christian Guide to Spirituality is Now Available!

Una Guía Cristiana a la Espiritualidad is now available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle EBook.

View the trailer in YouTube: https://youtu.be/tv0rgYH-2VQ.

For a discount on the paperback edition, go to https://www.createspace.com/5716951 and enter 83WZLNW4 to receive a 30 percent discount.

Para más información en español, véase: http://wp.me/p4iojd-8F.

Alternatively, visit my Amazon author page at:  Amazon.com/author/stephen_w_hiemstra.

Thanks for your patience!  This project has been a blessing, but also a long time in coming.

Continue Reading

Plantinga Defends Merits of Confessional Faith, Part 1

Plantinga_review_05092015Alvin Plantinga. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  (Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Part 3 of my Longfield review ended with a rather frustrating assessment:

“The weakness in the evangelical position is philosophical:  very few PCUSA pastors and theologians today subscribe to Scottish Common Sense Realism.  If to be postmodern means to believe that scripture can only be interpreted correctly within its context, then we are all liberals in a Machen sense.  A strong, confessional position requires philosophical warrant—a philosophical problem requires a philosophical solution—which we can all agree upon.  In the absence of philosophical warrant and credibility, the confessions appear arbitrary—an act of faith.” [1]

For most of the period since 1925, evangelicals have had a bit of a philosophical inferiority complex—having to take on faith that the confessional stance of the church since about the fourth century was not defensible in a rigorous philosophical sense.  It is at this point that Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief becomes both an important and interesting read.

The philosophical problem is more specifically found in epistemology—how do we know what we know?  Because Christianity is a religion based on truth claims, epistemology is not just nice to know—it is core tenant of the faith.  For example, Jesus said:

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 ESV)

Being unable after 1925 to agree on the core confessions of the denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and evangelicals more generally were placed on the defensive. Faith increasingly became private matter as more and more the denomination withdrew from public life, from active evangelism and missions, and from teaching about morality.  Later, unable to meet the modern challenge, the denomination came to be coopted by postmodern philosophies—if faith is simply a strongly held value, then it will crumble when confronted with more deeply held beliefs.

Into this crisis of faith, Plantinga defines his work in these terms:

“This book is about the intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief.  When I speak here of Christian belief, I mean what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church.” (vii)

Notice that Plantinga has to both specify that he is writing about epistemology (theory of knowledge)—“intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief”— and specify what Christianity is—“what is common to the great creeds”.  Plantinga expands on this problem saying:

“Is the very idea of Christian belief coherent?…To accept Christian belief, I say, is to believe that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world, who loves us and was willing to send his son into the world to undergo suffering, humiliation, and death in order to redeem us.” (3)

In other words, in his mind the measure of the depth of this crisis of faith extends to the very definition of the faith.

Alvin Plantinga wrote Warranted Christian Belief while working as the John A O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame [2].  He writes in 14 chapters divided into 4 parts:

Part 1: Is There a Question? (pages 1-66)

  1. Kant
  2. Kaufman and Hicks

Part 2: What is the Question? (67-166)

  1. Justification and the Classical Picture
  2. Rationality
  3. Warrant and the Freud-and-Marx Compliant

Part 3: Warranted Christian Belief (167-356)

  1. Warranted Belief in God
  2. Sin and Its Cognitive Consequences
  3. The Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model: Revealed in Our Minds
  4. The Testimonial Model: Sealed in Our Hearts
  5. Objections

Part 4: Defeaters (356-499)

  1.  Defeaters and Defeat
  2.  Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship
  3.  Postmodernism and Pluralism
  4.  Suffering and Evil

Plantinga lays out his argument in a lengthy preface and follows his chapters with an index.

Plantinga’s book focuses on two main points which he describes as:

  1. “An exercise in apologetics and philosophy of religion” where he answers a “range of objections to the Christian belief”; and
  1. “An exercise in Christian philosophy…proposing an epistemological account of Christian belief from a Christian perspective.” (xiii)

In other words, Plantinga responds to objections the faith and lays out a model for understanding the philosophical acceptability of faith—an idea that he calls “warrant”.  Plantinga defines warrant as:

“warrant is intimately connected with proper function. More fully, a belief has warrant just it is produced by cognitive process or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for the exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.” (xi)

The core discussion of warrant lays out what he refers to as the Aquinas/Calvin model of faith. He writes:  “Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin concur on the claim that there is a kind of natural knowledge of God.” (170). This innate knowledge of God given at birth he refers to as a “sensus divinitatis” which is triggered by external conditions or stimuli, such as a presentation of the Gospel (173).

Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief is an important contribution to epistemology because he meets the objections to faith head on and offers a plausible explanation for why Christian faith is reasonable, believable, and true. Christians need to be aware of these arguments both to know that their faith is defensible and to share this defense when questions arise.

Part of this argument is that if the existence of God cannot be logically proven and cannot be logically disproven then it is pointless to talk about logical proofs—the modern challenge to faith is essentially vacuous—empty without philosophically based merit. Faith rests on what is more reasonable and more consistent with experience—what beliefs are warranted, not mathematical proofs[3]. From Plantinga’s perspective, we accordingly do need not be defensive about our faith.

In this review, I have outlined Plantinga’s basic presentation.  In part 2, I will review the arguments against faith and, in part 3, I will look at Plantinga’s model of faith in greater depth.

 

[1] Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-11i)

[2] http://philosophy.nd.edu/people/alvin-plantinga.

[3]In financial modeling of complex firms, the rule of thumb is that it takes a model to kill a model—managing the firm without a model threats firm profitability and ultimate survival.

Continue Reading

McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 3

Twilight_review_05042015Alister McGrath. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay. (Goto part 1; goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Because human beings cannot live without hope, nihilism itself points to God. As Freud himself admits, we were created to worship God!  In effect, atheism contains the seeds of its own destruction. The paradox of Christianity is that the cross has become a symbol of hope [1].

McGrath’s argument for the twilight of atheism is found in chapter 7 where he notes an unexpected resurgence of religion. He starts with his own experience as a former atheist and 5 additional points:

  1. The intellectual argument against God has stalled,
  2. Suffering in the world is an argument for God, not against God,
  3. Atheism lacks imagination,
  4. Renewed interest in the spiritual, and
  5. The remarkable growth of Pentecostalism (6-7).

Each of these points deserves discussion.

The Intellectual Argument Against God Has Stalled. McGrath writes:

“the philosophical argument about the existence of God has ground to a halt.  The matter lies beyond rational proof, and is ultimately a matter of faith, in the sense of judgments made in the absence of sufficient evidence…The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God.” (179-180)

Part of the appeal of atheism was that it was logical consistent and, presumably, based on scientific reasoning while Christianity was not.  McGrath writes:

“the arguments of Feuerback, Marx, and Freud really offer little more than post hoc rationalization of atheism, showing that this position, once presupposed, can make sense of things.  None of the three approaches, despite what their proponents claim, is any longer seen as a rigorously evidence-based, empirical approach that commands support on scientific grounds” (182).

If atheistic arguments require as much faith as those supporting the existence of God, then observers need to make their decision based on something other than logic.  In fact, McGrath observes an interesting parallel between the atheist arguments against God and the classical arguments for God’s existence set forth by Thomas Aquinas (181).  Once this parallel is acknowledged, it is clear that the atheist argument is no stronger than the argument for faith.

Suffering In The World Is An Argument For God, Not Against God. The classical argument against God is a question.  How can an all-powerful, benevolent God allow pain and suffering?  Either God is not all powerful or he is not benevolent.

While this is a good question, McGrath asks: who planned the Holocaust  and who slammed the doors shut on gas chambers? (183)  If the new gods of modernity and postmodernity are so good, why is the past two hundred years so full of genocide and murder?  By contrast, the God of the Bible is a god who suffers alongside his people—“who bears our sin, pain, and anguish.” (184)  The modern experiment, while attractive in theory, has utterly failed in practice and we now know from personal experience what happens when human beings start to think of themselves as gods.

If the logical argument whether to accept the atheist or the Christian religion is a draw, then the practical experience of the modern era clearly favors Christianity, not atheism.  The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, not to keep people out.

Atheism Lacks Imagination.  McGrath writes:  “Atheism invited humanity to imagine a world without God.” (188)  John Lennon even wrote a song, Imagine—nothing left to kill or die for, on this theme before he was murdered (173). Yet, no one needed to image a world without God anymore—they need only look at the history of the Soviet Union.  And the more people learned about it, the less they liked what they saw (187).  Those with the most imagination, artists and musicians, often found themselves sent to prison camps—the gulags of Siberia. Meanwhile, Christian writers, artists, and musicians continue to flourish (1986).

Renewed Interest In The Spiritual. The fathers of atheism predicted that the world would outgrow the infantile illusions of religion, but in fact the opposite has occurred.  In no place is this more true that in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe and Russia itself (189).

The Remarkable Growth Of Pentecostalism.  The Pentecostal movement started as a revival in Los Angeles in 1906 but now accounts for about a half billion believers (193-195).  McGrath sees 2 factors accounting for the popularity of Pentecostalism:

  1. “Pentecostalism stresses the direct, immediate experience of God and avoids the dry and cerebral forms of Christianity.” and
  1. “The Movement uses a language and form of communication that enables it to bridge cultural gaps effectively.” (195).

McGrath sees Pentecostalism as the single, most significant alternative to Roman Catholicism and as the “new Marxism” of the third world.  That honor used to go to the churches of the Protestant Reformation who seemed to have lost their sense of the sacred and have become significantly secularized (195-197).  McGrath contrasts the dry rationalism of protestants—theological correctness whether left or right— to the living faith of the Pentecostals (214-215) [1].

All good things must come to an end.

McGrath ends with a lengthy account of the life and exploits of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  Madalyn is best known for her lawsuit in 1960-63 to end prayer in U.S. public schools (248).  She went on to found the society called American Atheists from which she apparently stole an enormous sum of money (253).  What is less well known is that her son, William J. Murray, on whose behalf her lawsuit was filed, grew up to become a believer, a writer, a Baptist minister and an advocate for return of prayer to public schools (248) [2].  What could be more ironic?

Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism is a wonderful book and a great read.

[1] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:4 ESV).  Also see: Jesus:  Joy in Sorrow (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Xg).

[2] McGrath writes: “How can God’s existence be doubted, when God is such a powerful reality in our lives? And how can God’s relevance be doubted, when God inspires us to care for the poor, heal the sick, and work for the dispossessed?” (216)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_J._Murray

REFERENCES

William J. Murray. 1995. Let Us Pray: A Plea for Prayer in Our Schools. William Morrow & Company.

William J. Murray. 2000. My Life Without God: The Rest of the Story. Harvest House Publishers.

McGrath Chronicles the Rise and Fall of Atheism, Part 3

Continue Reading

A Christian Guide to Spirituality Now Available!

1_Hagia_Sophia_book_cover_front_web_6x9_07282014A Christian Guide to Spirituality is now available (in the U.S.) on Amazon.com.  It is also available on CreateSpace’s eStore [1].

I would encourage you to visit the T2Pneuma Publishers LLC website (Link) where Leader and Media Guides are available.  You can also navigate there by selecting the Publisher menu above.

Below is a brief introduction.

************************

A Christian Guide to Spirituality: Foundations for Disciples

Authored by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Foreword by Neal D. Presa, Edited by Reid Satterfield

List Price: $12.95

T2Pneuma Publishers LLC

ISBN-13: 978-0615971353 (Custom)
ISBN-10: 0615971350
BISAC: Religion / Spirituality

6″ x 9″ (15.24 x 22.86 cm)
Black & White on White paper
230 pages

Spirituality is lived belief. When we pray, worship, or reach out to our neighbors, we live out our beliefs. Our beliefs structure our spirituality like skin stretched over the bones of our bodies.

These beliefs start with faith in God the Father through Jesus Christ as revealed through the Holy Spirit in scripture, in the church, and in daily life. Our Trinitarian theology orders our beliefs. Without a coherent theology, we lose our identity in space and time having no map or compass to guide us on our way. In the end, we focus on ourselves, not God.

Christian spirituality starts with God, not with us.

A Christian Guide to Spirituality takes the form of 50 daily devotions. Each topic is treated with a scriptural reference, reflection, prayer, and questions for discussion. Occasionally, references are provided for further study. The first four chapters (Introduction, Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and Apostle’s Creed) cover 40 days making them suitable as a Lenten study. Ten additional days focus on the spiritual disciplines and a short conclusion. Fifty days of study allow an Easter study running through Pentecost.

Reading A Christian Guide to Spirituality will help readers understand Christian spirituality better and nurture their faith. There is no such thing as quality time with the Lord; there is only time. The living God speaks to us in many ways, but especially through scripture. These three sources cited (Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and Apostle’s Creed) are commonly called the “rule of faith” (regula fidei) and were utilized for nearly two millennia as a means to apprentice the faith. These sources are the heart of the confessions of most Christian faith communities and denominations.

Author Stephen W. Hiemstra (MDiv, PhD) is a slave of Christ, husband, father, aspiring pastor, economist, and writer. He lives with his wife, Maryam, of thirty years in Centreville, VA and they have three grown children. The forward is written by Neal D. Presa, past moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This book might be classified appropriately in spirituality, Christian living, devotion, faith, religion, and theology.

******************

What people are saying…

You have my blessing. It’s book that needed to be written. It will do a lot of good.
– Peter John Kreeft, Boston College

Stephen provides a helpful, accessible guide using the classic catechetical structure of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed.
– David A. Currie, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

This is a book for those who want to understand how best to have a living faith and an ever deepening devotional and experiential knowledge of God.
– Stephen Macchia, Pierce Center for Disciple-Building

[1] www.CreateSpace.com/4669702.

Continue Reading

Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Riverside Presbyterian Church, Sterling, VA.  Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Forward

Good morning. Welcome to Riverside Presbyterian Church.

This morning we conclude our study of Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome. Although we are jumping into the deep end of the pool again, the lesson is easy. How can we be blessed by something we do not understand? Our salvation depends solely on faith in Jesus Christ.

Invocational Prayer

Let’s pray.

Eternal Father, Beloved Son, Spirit of Hope. Make your presence known to us this morning. In the power of his Holy Spirit, inspire words spoken and illuminate the words heard. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

Text

Our lesson today comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans 15:7-13.

Hear the word of the Lord:

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.  For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” [2 Samuel 22:50]

And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” [Deuteronomy 32:43]

And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” [Psalm 117:1]

And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” [Isaiah 11:10]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:7-13 ESV)

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Introduction

How can I be blessed by something I do not understand? (2X)

As a teenager, I was passionate about my youth group. When the youth director left the church, the group collapsed. My last year of school there were three of us in the group: the Pastor, my best friend, and me. That whole year we meet on Wednesdays for pizza, Bonhoeffer, and the book of Romans. Since then, I have read the Bible through the lens of the Romans, particularly Romans 12:1-2—as written on the wall over there. In college, when I became bitter at life, it was the book of Romans that brought me back to God. Now, after the experience of serminary, I wonder how I could be so blessed by a book that I still understand only incompletely?

Clearly, this is not a new question. Faith is not irrational, but rather it is the beginning of rational discourse [1].

Organized speech always begins with assumptions. In the context of the scientific method, for example, the idea of faith is known as a hypothesis or an assumption. In the same way, even the words of this very sentence in my mouth are unintelligible without some prior agreement (an assumption) as to their meaning (2X).

Then, the logic of modern science and logic of faith are exactly the same. In the scientific method, the hypothesis provides focus for the research problem and a context for understanding it. In faith, we understand life in the context of the biblical narrative. In other words, our faith blesses us helping us to understand the will of God and our role in it.

Scripture Lesson

How can I be blessed by something that I do not understand? (2X) [2]

Paul’s answer to this question arises in verse 13. There Paul says: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (v 13). The blessings of God are joy, peace, and hope when we have faith [3].

Faith in what? In Corinthians, Paul wrote:  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22-23 ESV) [4].  Our faith is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death on the cross.

Reflection

Why does Paul spend so much time in his letter on the conflict between Jews and Gentiles? (2X)

It is useful to see Paul’s discussion of Jews and Gentiles as a conflict between brothers, Cain and Abel. No sibling should take precedence over the other in a healthy family. This concept allows Paul to use this tension between Jews and Gentiles as a kind of nature-nurture argument (2X) [5].

The nurture argument is that the law teaches us to give up our natural state of sin and thereby gain the blessing of God—this is a traditional source of Jewish pride. On the other hand, the argument is that human nature is basically good and we need no help from God or the law. For Paul, neither our natural abilities (Romans 1:18-32), nor the mentoring of the law (Romans 7:5) is sufficient to earn God’s grace. Neither brother—not the Jew by the law nor the Gentile through human nature—can claim the righteousness of God. (2X)

This is where the example of Abraham becomes important. Abraham was not righteous in himself nor through his actions. Paul writes: For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3 ESV; Genesis 15:6) (2X).  Like the prodigal son did not deserve his father ‘s forgiveness, neither do we deserve God’s forgiveness (Luke 15:11-23). So like Abraham, we have been justified by faith so that we can have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).

In other words, Abraham ‘s righteousness was a gift given to Abraham by God in response to his faith.

Application

In conclusion.  This argument Paul has a direct relationship with the divisions in the church today .

Consider the conflict over the last hundred years between liberals and evangelicals.  Neither through the natural goodness of human beings (nature) or through strict adherence to biblical principles (nurture) can we earn God’s grace. Salvation does not depend on being a liberal or evangelical.

How can we be blessed by something you do not understand? (2X)

In the eyes of God: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 ESV). In our context, one can say:  neither Liberal nor Evangelical, smart nor dumb, beautiful nor ugly, active or comatose, young or old.  We are all one in Christ Jesus. Our salvation does not depend on our gender, our culture, our pay, our intelligence nor our political correctness. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ so that we can approach God as sons and daughters.

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father. We give thanks for Paul’s teaching in Romans. Thanks for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and the blessings lavished on us day after day, despite our ignorance. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

References

Dunn, James D.G.  1993.  “Letter to the Romans” pages 838-50 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid.  Downers Grove:  InverVarsity Press.

Hays, Richard B.  1989.  Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.

Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Hiemstra, Stephen W.  June 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management.  Society of Actuaries.  Accessed: 18 February 2014. Online:  http://bit.ly/1cmnQ00.

Schaeffer, Francis A.  2006.  Escape from Reason:  A Penetrating Analysis of Trends in Modern Thought (Orig pub 1968).  Downers Grove:  IVP Books.

Wallace, Daniel B.  1996.  Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics:  An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Footnotes

[1] The slogan – faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum) – is attributed to Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. AD 1033-1109. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anselm

[2] The text of today’s sermon is Romans 15:7-13 that sums up Paul’s epistle (Hays1989, 70-71). Paul premise described in verse 7: For Accept one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7 NIV) (2X). The word therefore ( Διὸ ), refers to verse 1, which refers to the weak and strong in faith. It says: We who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not to please ourselves (Romans 15:1 NIV). Ironically, the weak, in this context refer to Jewish Christians concerned about the food laws (Romans 14:2).

This implies that verse 7 deals with Jews and Gentiles. If you do not see this point, Paul cites four passages together Jews and Gentiles: 2 Samuel 22:50, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10. It is clear that Paul focuses on the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the church of Rome.

[3] James D.G. Dunn Theologian (1993) believes that Paul has three goals in Romans: An apologetic objective, a missionary objective, and a pastoral objective. These objectives overlap in their discussion of Jews and Gentiles.

[4] In fact, the whole of 1 Corinthians 1:17-23 is helpful. Also: (Hays 2011, 27-35).

[5] My thanks to Professor Rollin Grams of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC for suggesting this argument ET/NT 543 New Testament and Christian Ethics, 20 to 24 May 2013.

Continue Reading

Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (Romans 15:13 ESV).

How can one be blessed by something that is not fully understood?

As a teenager, I was passionate about my youth group.  When the youth director left the church, the group collapsed my senior year into a three-person study group—the pastor, my best friend, and I.  That entire year we got together on Wednesday for pizza, Bonhoeffer, and Romans. In college, when I became bitter at life, it was my understanding of God through Romans that brought me back.  Now, looking back at the experience from the other side of seminary, I wonder: how I could have been so blessed by a book that still defies my understanding?

This is not a new question.  Faith is not irrational; it is the beginning of rational discourse. Faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum)—is a motto attributed to Anselm (1033–1109; Archbishop of Canterbury) taken from his book, Proslogion, where he explored the existence and attributes of God [1].  The idea of faith preceding understanding is enshrined in scientific method, for example, because the method necessarily begins with a hypothesis (problem definition) [2].  Even the words in this sentence are unintelligible without assumptions as to their meaning.

My excursion into epistemology (the study of knowledge) is not out of place in a study of Romans.  Theologian James D.G. Dunn sees apologetics as one of Paul’s three objectives in Romans.  For example, Paul writes: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16 ESV). The other two objectives are a missionary objective [3] and a pastoral objective.  Dunn’s pastoral concern [4] is for unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians who made up the churches in Rome.  Paul is a disciplined writer who typically lays out objectives in his introduction and summarizes them at the end—in this case, Romans 15:7-13 [5].

Paul’s emphasis in Romans on the relationship among Jews and Gentiles sets up a kind of brother’s theme, as is often noted in the book of Genesis [6]. However, in Romans Paul uses tension between Jews and Gentiles as a stand in for a kind of false nurture/nature dichotomy [7].  The argument goes that with law we are nurtured from our natural state of sin—the traditional source of Jewish pride.  However, what might seem like an either—or argument is used by Paul as a neither—nor argument.  But for Paul, neither our natural abilities (Romans 1:18-32) nor the tutorage of law (Romans 7:5) are sufficient to earn us the grace of God.  Neither brother (Jew or Gentile) can claim the righteousness of God.

Here is where the example of Abraham becomes instrumental.  Abraham was not righteous in himself or by his actions.  Paul writes:  Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3 ESV).  Just like the prodigal son did not deserve his father’s forgiveness, neither do we deserve God’s forgiveness (Luke 15:11-23).  So just like Abraham:  since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; (Romans 5:1 ESV).

How can we be blessed by something that we do not understand?  We are sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ.

[1] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anselm/

[2] The steps often employed in the method are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, and responsibility bearing.  Stephen W. Hiemstra. June 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management.  Society of Actuaries.  Accessed:  18 February 2014. Online:  http://bit.ly/1cmnQ00.

[3] Apostle—Romans 1:1; support for a missionary journey to Spain; Romans 15:24.

[4] Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7 ESV). James D.G. Dunn.  1993.  “Letter to the Romans” pages 838-50 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid.  Downers Grove:  InverVarsity Press.  Pages 839-40.

[6] Richard B. Hays.  1989.  Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 70-71.

[7] Genesis has lots of brothers, including—Cain/Abel, Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, and Joseph/brothers—which drive the theme of.

[8] My thanks to Professor Rollin Grams of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,Charlotte, NC for suggesting this argument in  ET/NT 543 New Testament and Christian Ethics, May 20-24, 2013.

Continue Reading