Shuck and Jive

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Conversations with Bob: From Bob to Me

This will be fun as long as it goes. My colleague Bob Campbell is having a conversation with me about theology, history, science and so forth.

It began with this post. Bob responded. Then me. Now Bob. I am going to put all these posts under the heading of "Conversations with Bob" to the right of this blog.


Thank you for you kind words.

I believe God is personal. By this I mean two things: first God is not an impersonal force but rather a person who, to use anthropomorphic terms, makes choices and has relationships. You say that you believe that saying that God is personal is a metaphor. I’m not quite sure what you mean by this. Do you mean by this that God is an impersonal force? If that’s what you mean, well, I disagree with you, but hey, this is America and you can believe what you want. On the other hand, (BAD PUN COMING!) personally, (whew, glad I got that off my chest!), I believe that belief in a personal God is one of the essentials of Christianity. What you believe is between you and God. However I’m not sure what “between you and God” means if you think God being personal is a metaphor.

If you mean that Bible uses personal language about God as a metaphor I disagree with you on textual grounds. The Biblical writers clearly believed that God is personal. From the texts about Abraham to the Book of Revelation, God is described as personal. God speaks, God makes covenants, God gets angry, God loves, God forgives, etc. Furthermore, I believe God is personal because I experience God in a personal way.

Is this belief, whether Biblical or mine provable in a scientific way? Nope. I think I can safely say that the Biblical writers and editors intended to say that God is personal. You might or might not disagree with that. We may need to talk more about this.

I’m now going to go on to something you did not deal with directly in your response: the nature of science and how science interacts with faith. I suspect, given what you said in response to me and in other things that you have said in your blog that we just might disagree about this.

I grew up theologically and philosophically in a Dutch school of thought begun by Abraham Kuyper and continued by a philosopher named Herman Dooyeweerd, a theologian named G. C. Berkouwer, some other strange characters that hang out in Canada and some who were at Fuller Seminary when I went there back in the 1970’s. Lewis Smedes was one of these characters and one of my professors. By the way, the Yale school of thought from back in the 70’s and 80’s with George Lindbeck and Hans Frei tended to think somewhat along these lines too.

Anyway, they argued that everyone comes to every conversation with presuppositions. Thus when I speak about science and the scientific method I also talk about the presuppositions that scientists use. The scientific method presupposes that the universe is a regular place and things happen in regular patterns. This is an absolute necessity for scientists because repeatability is the name of the game. If a scientist dumps a measured chemical into water and boils it and gets a calcium chloride precipitant then the scientist repeats the experiment. If she doesn’t get a calcium chloride precipitant the second time she will repeat the experiment a bunch more times. If she only gets the precipitant the one time she has to conclude that either the chemical or the water was contaminated in the first batch.

But to argue that the scientific method proves that things always happen in regular patterns is a circular argument. To make such an argument is to say that the presuppositions of the scientific method prove the presuppositions of the scientific method which is absurd. Now if one makes it a faith statement, that’s another kettle of fish! Some faith statements, like this one, are non-provable. And scientists, or at the very least philosophers of science know this.

Oh, and just so you know I really don’t like the terms natural and supernatural. I think the Church went down the wrong road when it used those terms and has paid for it. I don’t believe, (and yes, this is a faith statement), that God set up a bunch of laws and then breaks them every once in a while. That is what the terms natural and supernatural imply. I prefer to talk about things that happen most of the time and other things that happen rarely. That is, God makes the rules, humans just make observations. And God can do as God chooses, no matter what humans conclude from their observations. Yes, this makes me terribly Reformed and a bit of a curmudgeon, but hey, I’m 55, almost, and feel like I’ve earned the right to be a curmudgeon every once in a while. After all, I’ve been a pastor for 28 years and have attended innumerable session and presbytery meetings. That’s enough to make anyone a curmudgeon.

Therefore to say as I suspect you might, given some of the things that I have read on your blog that because human observation says that dead humans always stay dead is to make the presupposition of the scientific method a faith statement. One certainly can say that it is human experience that dead humans usually and maybe almost always stay dead. I certainly have never run into a person who’s funeral I have done at a local restaurant a week or two later, and I suspect that this is not because the revived dead go to different restaurants than the ones I frequent.

But one of the central claims of, let’s call it traditional Christianity, is that at least one human who died rose from the dead. I think we can agree that traditional doctrine does not say that Jesus was merely resuscitated. That is to suggest that the resurrection of Jesus was fundamentally different from the resurrection stories of other people in the Bible. Traditional Christianity, while it may not say so directly, certainly assumes that the boy that Elijah raised from the dead, Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus lived for a while and then died again. We can have a big debate about whether Jesus rose in the same body he had when he was alive but that it was somehow transformed or whether he had a new body. The resurrection accounts in the gospels make it pretty clear that the resurrected Jesus had a body of some sort, that is that he was, in some way, physical. On the other hand he sure wasn’t physical in any way that we normally see humans as physical

One can make the argument that the resurrection accounts in the gospels and the statements of Paul are not reliable textually, as parts of literary documents, or because they vary so dramatically that they cannot be records of the same event. Such arguments are certainly open to debate. But to argue that Jesus could not have risen from the dead because people do not rise from the dead based on the experience and methods of science is to make a circular argument.

I recognize that you may not agree with me. If so, please tell me why.

Now, as to eschatology, or specifically the return of Jesus. I have read some of the writings of members of the Jesus Seminar although clearly not as much or as thoroughly as you have. I read some of the earlier works of Crossan and some of the online statements of others and some group conclusions. I disagree with the finding of the Jesus Seminar that Jesus was not a preacher of eschatology. I find the use by the Jesus Seminar of the principle of dissimilarity to be problematic. I understand theirs is an attempt to find the real Jesus behind the later accretions of Christian thought. However to rule out statements of Jesus because those statements are similar to others made by Jews living in the same time of Jesus is to remove Jesus from his environment. Jesus was a 1st century Jew. Certainly Jesus said things that other people of his time agreed with. At least some Jews in Judea and Galilee in the 1st century had strains of apocalypticism. You certainly find those strains in portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, writings of certain rabbis and the actions of various different messiahs who arose between, say, 160 BC and 132 AD. To eliminate the apocalyptic strains from the gospels, and Paul and other New Testament documents is to remove Jesus, and the writers of those other documents from their time.

So, what do I think will happen when Jesus returns? Well, I’m not too sure about the universe collapsing. As I understand it astronomers are still debating that one. Seriously, given the symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature I’m not willing to make any assertions about astronomic or geologic events that may or may not occur when Jesus returns. But let me make some theological assertions that I suspect that you will disagree with:

  1. I have much less faith in the ability of humans to make positive changes even with God’s help than you seem to. Frankly the 20th century just about did it for me when it comes to human goodness and advancement. Humans have this amazing ability to take the good things God created, learn something about using them, and then use them for appalling purposes. Sure, I appreciate modern medicine, electricity and computer chips. But humans also created ways to kill a lot of people all at once, starting with more and more accurate artillery and machine guns through the atomic bomb and other more recent military technology. Karl Barth lost his faith in progress at the beginning of World War I. I lost mine during the idiotic Vietnam War. Sorry, I don’t have much hope in humans fixing things up, particularly with the help of an impersonal god. Part of what I’m wondering is does an impersonal God even care? And how would we know? (Or maybe when you say that to say God is personal is a metaphor you do not mean that God is impersonal?) On top of all this, I’m a Reformed kind of guy. I believe in total depravity.
  2. I particularly like what Paul says in Romans 8 about all creation groaning, longing for liberation. While this is a bit of an interpolation, I suggest that humans have done a great deal of harm to God’s good earth and that the earth longs for . . . I guess I would call it renewal, revitalization, being turned into what God intended it to be. Frankly, given our wasteful use of fossil fuels and our blithe failure to develop clean alternative sources of energy I think humans will be in deep doo doo around 100 years from now. I don’t think evolution will help all that much, at least not if humans are going to remain in any way similar to what we are now. On the other hand, from a purely secular point of view I think the good old earth could go on its way just fine without humans. We talk about destroying the earth. We aren’t destroying the earth. We are making it uninhabitable for humans, at least for as many humans as there are on the planet now. And consumerist western society is preparing the way.
  3. I do believe that it is the responsibility for Christians to act in ways that promote justice. I would call such action the breaking in of the Kingdom of God to the present age. However I don’t think the Kingdom will be complete until Jesus return and heals all wounds, ends all injustice, and yes, brings about the final resurrection and judgment. And yes, that is a faith statement. I also find your comments on the return of Jesus as metaphor to be a faith statement. I wonder where you get it.

I think that’s enough disagreement for one day.

Grace and peace to ya John!


  1. **That is, God makes the rules, humans just make observations. And God can do as God chooses, no matter what humans conclude from their observations.**

    Is Bob just applying this to things we can observe scientifically? As in, gravity has certain laws it must conform to, light has certain laws, the way humans process oxygen follows certain laws.

    Because if this is applied as a whole, then I think we'd run into problems. If the rules become whatever God decides at that time, and then change later, how can we be sure of anything about God? Even salvation would be suspect, because the rules surrounding salvation could become changed. I know there is a verse that says God is not a liar, but if that is also a rule, couldn't that also be changed?

    **On the other hand he sure wasn’t physical in any way that we normally see humans as physical**
    I'd like to thank him for making this point, because too often the focus is on a bodily resurrection, and whenever the word 'body' gets thrown into the mix, the correlation is usually like the type of body we have.

    **Humans have this amazing ability to take the good things God created, learn something about using them, and then use them for appalling purposes. ** I wonder how much this is due to expectations, though. Bob said that he holds to total depravity. I may be missing the idea behind that, but the concept is that man, left to his own devices, is not good, period? Or all good acts are sin-tainted? But that would still lead to the act being bad.

    Anyway, what I was going for there is that if one holds the belief system that nothing humans do will ever permanently fix things and that humans are inherently sinful, couldn't that lead to humans not trying 100% to fix things? If they're going to fail anyway, would they give a full effort?

    And if the hope is for some paradise life after death, or God coming to rescue us, wouldn't that also change the effort humans put in? Because there'd be a 'fail-safe' even if humans dont' succeed, and so that would mean humans wouldn't have a 'do or die' approach, because they can fall back on something.

  2. I agree with Bob about the language of the miraculous. In my more technical moments, I've said that better terminology would be natural and supranatural (sort of "above and beyond" the natural). If it occurs in nature and is not a result of human intervention, it's natural by definition.