Cultural Adaptation

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Up to this point, most of our discussion has focused on individual behavior and learning, but no one is an island—even Robinson Crusoe was never truly alone even before he met Friday.⁠1 We live and participate in the cultures of our families, workplace, and society that influence our thinking and behavior directly through rules, regulations, and law and indirectly by structuring the presuppositions that we use in all our decisions.

What is Culture?

Culture is term taken from sociology that is often described as the sum of a society’s traditions, especially as they pertain to literature, the arts, language, and music. A more helpful framework, however, can be built based on decision requirements in a corporate context. Far from irrelevant to spiritual formation, the culture context of work plays a key role in secular formation. The same framework for culture can by analogy help interpret personality.

Nobel laureate economist Herbert Simon defined rationality as making a choice among all possible alternatives. Economists more generally hypothesize that the firm strives to maximize its net present value assuming perfect knowledge of all future cash flows. If all decisions are rational and predictable given knowledge about technology and market prices, this theory implies that a firm has no culture (or no cultural effect) because given a set of circumstances every managers would reach the same decision.

In practice, we observe that decisions are costly, resources are limited, and decisions are frequently made based on rules of thumb and habit. For these reasons, in part, Simon extended the theory of the firm to limit rational behavior—his theory of bounded rationality (Simon 1997, 88). Culture arises because highly rational decisions are costly. Managers ration their time by applying rules of thumb based on previous decisions and known costs and benefits, not perfect information. These rules of thumb plus manager training and experience determine a firm’s decision culture. Interestingly, the more costly rational decisions are, the stronger the cultural effect.

The existence of culture implies that a firm’s history is interesting. The time sequence of decisions and their consequences predisposes the organization toward some growth paths and away from others, a concept sometimes described as path-dependence. The personal histories of leaders are important in understanding attitudes about alternatives and the speed at which decisions are made. 

Cultural Personality Types 

The existence of culture suggests why organizations develop classifiable personalities. Several widely observed types can be described. Criteria describing these types include preferred decision style, key values, primary mode for training, nature of control process, and default transaction-opportunity cost trade-off. A culture articulates key values in terms of where decisions ideally take place. 

Three cultural archetypes stand out in society today that compete for dominance: a traditional culture, a modern culture, and a postmodern culture. A fourth type, a dying culture (or culture under stress) is more of a transition phase than a stable culture. At any time, subcultures within society may favor any one of these types. Competition among these types is influenced by the resources available and other circumstances in the environment beyond immediate control. This suggests that one or the other subculture can rise in dominance and dominance can also pass back and forth. Progress from one to another is neither inevitable or expected because circumstances external to the firm dictate the ideal culture.

The Types⁠2

A modern culture delegates authority to line managers, whose leadership role is often earned through technical competence, because good decisions require the objective information they produce. A postmodern culture shares decision authority to assure that decisions are equitable. A traditional culture centralizes many decisions to adhere to senior management preferences. Training and control processes reinforce these cultural preferences. 

A dying organization is an organization in crisis. A dying organization may start with any cultural affinity but evolves toward traditional culture. This is because crises consist of a rapid series of nonstandard problems that exceed delegations and require senior management input. Cutbacks likewise strengthen the position of senior managers.

The mix of transaction costs and opportunity costs also reflects cultural affinities. Transaction costs rise with the number of people participating in decisions, while opportunity costs (the cost of no choosing the next best alternative) rise as decision alternatives are excluded. The traditional culture has the lowest transaction costs because it considers the fewest options—only senior manager preferences are consulted. The postmodern culture consults the most people, but it is not particularly reflective—only options actively advocated are considered. Transaction costs in the modern culture fall between these two extremes, but the modern culture prefers a review of all options.

Williamson (1981, 1564) sees both organizational costs constrained by market prices. The implication is that cultures evolve to reflect competitive conditions in the markets that firms serve. The dominant culture type may evolve with both market pressures and leadership changes, which may over time lead to overlapping cultural attributes. An office evolving from a modern to a postmodern type, for example, may begin to exhibit more group decision making, place less emphasis on academic credentials in assignments and promotions and rely less on peer review of work products. As Alchian (1950) argues learning process is likely a combination of trial and error, imitation of successful firms, and deliberative planning because uncertainty makes it unlikely that future market conditions can be fully anticipated.

Behavioral Weaknesses Impede Learning

Cultural types describe attributes at a point in time. Changing circumstances, however, force organizations to learn and adapt. Learning behavior is therefore a key measure of risk management performance. We observe behavior problems when incentive structures disrupt normal learning processes, create logical traps or exacerbate normal organizational inertia.⁠3

An organizational culture mirrors its environment because decisions and rules evolve over time to deal with environmental challenges. Rewards of money, power and status within an organization accrue to leaders that facilitate this evolution. When prior decisions and rules need to change, a conflict arises because those changes may threaten the social position of those leaders.

Consider the case of a firm in a growing business. Suppose the firm starts out as a specialized firm in a competitive market. As it grows and acquires competitors, it takes market prices as given. As market share grows, however, it eventually becomes the market and can set price. Further growth requires that it diversify into new markets. At each stage in the firm’s growth, the rules for success and risks change (Porter 1980, 191-295). If the organizational culture adapts with a lag and a threat grows quickly enough, firm solvency could be threatened before adaptation is complete.

Christian Culture

Although the Christian faith encourages rational decisions, Christian culture should not be confused with any of the cultural types outlined above. Christian culture differs from these types because the objective of Christian culture is conformity to Christ rather than conformity to the rational model. Still, the above cultural types are also evident in a Christian context, as when dominations employ different polities.

The term, polity, refers to how a denomination or church is governed. A denomination managed by bishops is likely organized with a traditional culture while a church managed through direct voting by the congregation likely has a postmodern culture. Meanwhile, a church managed by elders and professionally trained clergy likely has a modern culture. Each of these polities can operate differently in practice, but the formal structure of the polity clearly shapes the culture of churches and denominations.

Just like no perfectly rational firms exist, Christians cannot obtain perfection in this life but Christ is the standard, our sacred North Pole, and the Holy Spirit to guide us. With our compass set on north, we are not easily led into darkness, but focus on the light. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we normally avoid logical traps and quickly repent when we fall into one. The basic ideal is that in Christ we have the perfect guidance system even when our lives are not perfect.

Footnotes

1 The name of a characters in a novel (DeFoe 1719).

2 Adapted from (Hiemstra 2009).

3 Inertia is the physical property expressed in Sir Isaac Newton’s first law of motion: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Inertia leads organizations to resist change and discount low-probability events.

References

Defoe, Daniel. 1719. The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. United Kingdom: William Taylor.

Hiemstra, Stephen W. 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pp 51-54 of Risk Management. Society of Actuaries. Issue 16. June.

Porter, Michael E. 1980. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. New York: Free Press.

Simon, Herbert A. 1997. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations (Orig pub 1945). New York: Free Press. 

Williamson, Oliver. 1981. “The Modern Corporation: Origin, Evolution, Attributes.” pp. 1537-1568 in Journal of Economic Literature. December.

Cultural Adaptation

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Rational Learning

“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut. I know that you
have but little power, and yet you have kept
my word and have not denied my name.”
(Rev 3:8 ESV)

Earlier in my preface, I argued that the act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Rational thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[1] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

So what is rational thinking?

The word, rational, implies that a conclusion comports with reason or logic. Rational thinking is thinking logically while thinking has to do with the work of the mind. Using logic and experience to judge rightly. In this context, rational thinking starts with making reasonable comparisons and associations.

Rational thinking benefits directly from logic, such as mathematics and mathematical relationships. We might argue, for example, that 1+1 = 2 which simply states that adding one to one makes two. Alternatively, we might argue that 1+1+1 > 2 which says that one plus one plus one is greater than two. Simple comparisons, like these two equations, make rational thinking extremely powerful in ordering our thinking and quickly admit substantial complexity.

Rational learning, which is based on comparisons, differs from behavioral learning because we need to stand back from simple responses to stimuli. For example, suppose I am a high school student trying to decide whether to take a full-time job or to enroll in college. From a behavioral learning perspective, the job provides an immediate benefit while college enrollment requires an immediate expense for tuition and living expenses so the obvious decision is to take the job. From a rational learning perspective, the lifetime earnings in the job may be only a small fraction of the lifetime earnings after completing a college degree, even accounting for costs involved so the decision likely is to enroll in college. While both alternatives involve uncertain outcomes, the behavior learning model focuses on short-term costs and benefits, while the rational learning model employs more information than simply immediate costs and benefits.

From a faith perspective, how we learn clearly affects our attitude about our faith, especially when it comes to future events. Think about our attitude about children. When our children are young, they require a lot of expense and attention. Even if they care for you in your senior years, such benefits are far into the future. Considering only the short-term costs and benefits, the behavior learning model suggests that having children is only a present cost, while the rational learning model weighs the current costs against future benefits. The calculation applies to living out our faith today in view of our future life in Christ. The sacrifice of praise on Sunday and of living a moral life the rest of the week has both present and future benefits, but only a rational evaluation sees beyond the sacrifice. Trust in God’s goodness and provision for our needs is also required

If blind response to stimulation leaves the exclusively behavioral learner at risk of addiction and of missing out of benefits preceded by costs, the exclusively rational learner falls prey to analysis paralysis. The rational learner patiently considers all available options, comparing costs and benefits. We all know Christians who get stuck evaluating all their options in life decisions and spend more time studying their faith than living it out. Coming to closure on decisions is frequently a problem for those specialized in rational decision making.

How do we come to closure on decisions? When should options be limited and a decision made?

In my experience, this is an opportunity to pray for God’s guidance. Where the behavioral decision maker needs to focus on developing patience in decision making, the rational decision maker needs to pray for guidance to be satisfied with the doors that God has already placed in front of them.[2]

Reference

Ortberg, John . 2015. All the Places to Go—How Will You Know? God has Placed Before You an Open Door: What Will You Do? Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

[1] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

[2] John Ortberg (2015, 257) sees the opened door is a fitting metaphor for how God invites us to step out in faith and service rather than having us wait for confirmation and comfort. He writes (10): “It’s an open door. To find out what’s on the other side, you’ll have to go through.” This opened door invitation always appears riskier than it really is because of who offers the invitation and for what purpose. The purpose that Ortberg sees is intensely interesting: “God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become.” (15). As God tells Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; 9, 35). In offering such blessings, God invites us to decide which doors to go through as part of our sanctification (16) and our decisions form our character and mold our identity (8).

 

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The World of Perception

One of the oldest photographs of me as a baby shows me in a high chair. I am smiling with my hands in the air and oatmeal on my face wearing a diaper and a top covered with a bib. The date on the photograph is February 1954 which means that I was about two months old.

Does little Stephen remember this early meal? Hardly. Did little Stephen climb into this chair or prepare his own food? Hardly. We know, however, from the picture that little Stephen is well fed and cared for because he is plump and happy. We suspect that little Stephen has a mom that loves and cares for him, but she is nowhere in the picture.

How does little Stephen perceive his world?

As parents (or siblings) we know that little Stephen needs constant watching because everything in arm’s reach goes straight into the mouth. Science tells us that babies are actually born blind, but babies can still feel, smell, and hear, although the mouth has priority. For the baby, trying something out generally means putting it in the mouth. No amount of reasoning by mom will change that behavior.

So how do little Stephen’s perceptions change with time?

If stuff goes into the mouth that does not belong there, little Stephen cries and cries, but that does immediately mean that it won’t go into the mouth a second time. If little Stephen does not like smashed peas, for example, he will still try them a few times before learning to refuse them on sight.

In the same manner, dad and other relatives may initially hold little Stephen, but pretty soon he will recognize that they are not mom and may get anxious and cry unless mom is in sight and comforting him.

How sophisticated is little Stephen’s decision making?

Through tasting, little Stephen learns that he likes some food and does not like other food—and other random, mouth sized objects. Good food gets a positive response from little Stephen; bad food gets a negative response. This tasting elicits a behavioral response, with either positive or negative.

Through sight, little Stephen compares his food and visitors with his prior experiences and either accepts or rejects them. Although these comparisons come much later than tasting per se, they form the basis of early rational decision making.

Who provides little Stephen’s template for thinking about God?

In little Stephen’s world, mom is the early model of God’s immanence because she brings him into the world and cares for him. Dad’s role as progenitor and provider is less obvious and serves as an early model of God’s transcendence.

How does little Stephen relate to his parents?

Little Stephen has a definite preference for mom because she cares for him and is always present. This preference only changes once trust is established both with mom and with dad.

Isn’t telling that we, as postmodern people, have grown fat and irritable? In our anxious world, the fascination with food reflects a mass regression to a child-like state, where we trust only things that go into the mouth—not because we are hungry, but because we are anxious—and where we cry for the one who cares for us, even if we do not even know his name.

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How We Learn

simplefaith_web_01172017

We most frequently follow one of three approaches to learning: the behavioral approach, the rational approach, and the authoritative approach. In the behavior approach, we follow the path of least resistance—we do more of things that have positive reinforcement and less of things with negative reinforcement. In the rational approach, we explore the alternatives presented and chose the best alternative based on our exploration. In the authoritative approach, we may start with either the behavioral or the rational approach but we limit our exploration to options suggested by a mentor or leader.

An example of the authoritative approach is found in Luke 8 following the Parable of the Sower, where Jesus gives his disciples a lesson:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11-15 ESV)

In this context, how do we know what we know? In the passage, Jesus gives us an interpretive key: “The seed is the word of God.” We understand and accept the lesson in this passage for two reasons. First, the key comes from a reliable source: Jesus. As Christians, we trust the Bible to tell us about Jesus who is known to use parables in his teaching. Second, the key itself, like the Copernican mathematics of planetary motion, makes intrinsic sense—the parable which was posed as a riddle, suddenly becomes meaningful like a lock opened with a key.

While not all problems that we are confronted with take the form of a riddle unlocked with a key, the parsimony displayed in Jesus’ parable demonstrates the value of the authoritative approach in learning. Most learning both inside and outside the church follows the authoritative approach, in part, because it accelerates our learning. Unbridled skepticism is a rookie mistake or a cynical attempt to undermine faith.

Our discomfort in the present age arises because we have many more choices than tools for selecting among them and we have been convinced that we should prefer the rational approach, even though even the best scientists rely on the informed opinion of others. Just like good seminary students apprentices themselves to the best pastors and theologians, the best scientists compete to be students in the best universities and with the best professors. It seems to be no accident that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, was the son of Germany’s finest psychologists of that day.[1] The question as to whether the authoritative approach is a valid approach to learning is moot, because everyone uses it.

If we try to avoid the authoritative approach, we actually put ourselves at risk. If we adopt the behavioral approach to every problem, for example, the positive reinforcement of addictive substances and addictive circumstances will lead us to self-destruction. Alternatively, if we adopt a rational approach to every problem, analysis paralysis will lead us into burnout and untimely decisions will cause us to miss opportunities. In this context, trusting a divine mentor can lead us to limit our choices to better choices.

The Parable of the Sower offers at least one other insight into our learning process. Jesus tells his disciples a story in the form of a parable. Story telling accomplishes at least three things relevant to the learning process. Stories are:

  1.  Easily understood and remembered.
  2.  Suggest insights into how the world works indirectly which does an end-run around our natural, human resistance to taking advice.
  3. Provide context for the words used in the story, defeating the criticism that the meaning of words depends solely on the social context of the reader.

Far from being unsophisticated, Jesus’ use of parables suggests a level of sophistication seldom equaled in the modern and post-modern eras, even in mass media.

Reference

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[1] “In 1912, Dietrich’s father [Karl] accepted an appointment to the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin. This put him at the head of his field in Germany, position he retained until his death in 1948.” (Metaxas 2010, 13)

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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.

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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.

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