From the early Catholic monks who established Oxford’s oldest colleges; to John Wycliffe, the Morning Star of the Reformation; to Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley burnt at the stake; to John Owen and the Puritans; to Wesley and Whitfield who launched England’s Evangelical Revival from Oxford; the Catholic Oxford Movement in the 19th century; and finally the Inklings, Lewis, Tolkein, Charles Williams in the 20th–Oxford’s social and political history has been intimately allied with the theological struggles of her citizens.
As has the history of England. Or Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Sweden, or Norway, or pretty much any European country.
That is because theology deals with the most important questions. Is there a God? Are we infinite, spiritual beings having a finite experience or finite beings having a finite experience? How can I be happy? What is a good life, and how can I live it?
* * *
But sometimes, our theology makes us cry. ‘Dr Houston,’ who I met last week was convinced of, though troubled by, the fact that all the good Jews, Muslims and Hindus were going to hell while he was going to heaven because he believed the right things. “Don’t be too sure on either count,” I wanted to say.
Rachel Held Evans explores this moral repugnance.
She sees, on CNN, a woman tortured and killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“Twenty years of Christian education assured me that because Zarmina was a Muslim, she would suffer unending torment in hell for the rest of eternity. How the Taliban punished Zarmina in this life was nothing compared with how God would punish her in the next…the idea that this woman passed from agony to agony, from torture to torture, from a lifetime of pain and sadness to an eternity of pain and sadness, all because she had less information about the gospel than I did, seemed cruel, even sadistic.”
And so Calvinism makes her cry.
* * *
This is the second course I’ve taken in Christian history. And I realized afresh that all denominational theologies are compilations by powerful, dominant, brilliant people–Augustine, Aquinas Luther, Calvin, John Owen or Jonathan Edwards–of their sincere readings of Scripture. And the different interpretations and emphases owe something to these individual’s biographies, psychological cast, characters, and the period in which they lived.
Now these clever men could not all be right when they hold differing opinions. Probably all of them are right about some things, and wrong about others.
SO… Do we get lazy and just take Luther or Calvin or Piper’s or Aquinas’s or Nicky Gumbel’s reading of Scripture as absolute truth? Or do wrestle with it ourselves, and let the Spirit speak to us, and highlight in gold marker the truths he wants us to learn–the truths which will be important in our own lives?
* * *
I chafe against the harm done to talented women who have not been allowed to teach, preach or lead because of sentences Paul wrote to 1st century women. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. These sentences certainly sound misogynistic to 21st century ears, and indeed, in most Western democracies, such attitudes or employment practices are, rightly, illegal!
I do not see that angry, dismissive, contemptuous spirit in Jesus. I asked Are the words of Paul and the words of Jesus equally important?
People commented, “You cannot have a salad bowl approach to Scripture. You cannot pick and choose. The Bible is what it is, not what you would like it to be.”
However, every denomination, including new ones like Calvary Chapel, the Vineyard or the Assemblies of God are based on someone else’s picking and choosing.
So the question is: Do I lazily choose the salad bowl that traditionalist conservative Anglicans, or Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel or Terry Virgo at New Frontiers have assembled, reflecting their own fears, insecurities, prejudices and scriptural readings? (New Frontiers, for instance, has no women leaders or preachers or teachers. What a waste of talent and spiritual gifts!)
Or do I engage with Scripture as a mere Christian? Not accepting a denominational position—someone else’s salad bowl—but allowing Scripture to speak afresh to me with its own majesty?
And if I should read Scripture wrongly? Well, salvation is not an IQ test. And honest intellectual error is not a sin. Laziness, however, is. I believe Christ will commend me for seeking him in the pages of his word, even if I get some things wrong.
* * *
So what should we do when Calvinism makes us cry?
We turn to Scripture. We turn to the merciful Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in which the righteous are judged on the kindness they showed, not on the basis of the kindness they did not show. We should read God “will judge to each person according to what he has done.” Romans 2:6.
We should remember that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) not just the sins of those who have made a Reformed profession of faith.
The cosmic significance of Christ and his sacrifice is vaster, deeper and larger than we can comprehend. In him all things hold together!
”See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul—half a drop! ah, my Christ!—
One drop would save my soul—half a drop! ah, my Christ!—
The precious, redemptive, atoning blood shed for more than Calvinists, Presbyterians or the Reformed. Shed for all men. And women!
The efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice might stagger us. As a friend said recently, when Calvinists shut the door of heaven in men’s faces, Jesus will run and open the windows and back doors.
* * *
When we hear five points of Calvinism–total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints–perhaps alarm bells should ring. It’s clever, but is it Christianity?
Jesus never spoke in language which requires an education to decode. His message could be understood by the children to whom he said the Kingdom belonged, while its riches delights theologians.
He told us that God was our father. A father who is loving, and fair, and seeks every means to advance his sons. Theology that consigns the majority of the population to hell is flawed, simply because it conflicts with the loving, seeking Fatherly heart of God as revealed in Scripture (while delighting its professors with the delicious sense of belonging to an inner ring).
The saved in Revelation cry, “Just and true are all your ways.” We are made in God’s image. If we find the consignment to hell of those who have never compelling heard of Jesus unjust and repugnant, if the unfairness makes us cry–perhaps this theological doctrine will be equally repugnant to God’s great heart.
How much more. If we care, how much more will God care: Scripture consistently uses this argument. If Jonah grieved for a plant–Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” Jonah 4:10.
Similarly, Jesus tells us that God yearns over the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son. And so the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10).
* * *
I do not yet have a fully developed theology of hell. But I am uncomfortable with the unchristian haste to consign the world God loves to hell. Let’s focus on the positive, the carrot—Christ; not the stick, the negative: Hell.
When our theology makes us cry, our theology is too small. We need to return to Christ, and return to Scripture, and read it with a humble, open mind.
Let’s have a more generous Catechism.
Who takes away the sins of the world?
Christ, the Lamb of God does. (John 1:29).
Whose sins does the Lamb of God take away?
Today, I cried about my theology – because there's been a huge disturbance in The Force from some misguided articles published. I am an Episcopalian. Proud to be one. It fits me nicely and I have found a church home that is good. However, the public would like to believe based on some superficial articles that we're down to fisticuffs in the pews over the recent votes regarding clergy of alternative lifestyles. I invite anyone to read my post over at Internetmonk under his post entitled “Today We Visit the Liberal Circus”. I'm currently the last long, long comment under the same handle I use here. It summarizes why I cry for my theology.
Anita Mathias says
Thanks LA, I agree!
Thanks, Na, for visiting my blog, which is getting increasingly theological!
you've addressed a question that i feel we all ponder on at some point in our lives, irespective of the faith one professes.Is ours the only way to salvation, and are all others not guaranted a place in heaven becuase they follow a different route.Are those who believe in just being good human beings , going to be denied a place after this life because they were not exposed to the right direction in thier life..I feel whoever is up there, has enough power, patience and above all compassion to segreate our entry there on the basis of our beliefs and religions.All we have to work on ih humility, compassion, patience forgiveness, and empathy..just a few of the things that we see in our concept of the One . after all aren't we just an extension of that spirit, and also have the same soul in us?
Was thinking about this last night and my feeling is that people worry too much about whether everyone else is saved and too little time on their own Christ-like lives. My salvation is not dependent on whether or not X religion is going to be saved or not. All that I have control over is my own response to God's call – I have influence, but not control over other people's salvation. My preferred form of influence is to lead by example. But I'm not going to waste my time worrying over who is right and who is wrong. Life is too dang short.
Anita Mathias says
Love “others do not have to be wrong in order for you to be right.”
Do you know the parable of the blind man and the elephant? God is richer than we imagine, & probably often smiles at our theological wrangles.
John Stott, probably the most respected recent British theologian postulates that the wicked will be consigned to the flames, and the flames destroy. So not eternal torment, but annihilation. Mark Twain quipped “I've been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and have not suffered one bit of harm from it.” Perhaps annihilation will be the same?
Just and true are all your ways, I subscribe by faith to the song in Revelation!!
One of the best people I knew was an atheist. He lived an extremely Christ-like life in every aspect. As a cultural Jew, he once was confronted with a patient at the VA hospital with a giant swastika tattooed on his chest. My friend and colleague treated him as he would any other patient. He told me that he forgave him because he truly didn't understand the meaning of the tattoo. A beautiful soul, yet he consciously affirmed his atheism. To him, God felt man-made…invented by us to explain the inexplicable.
I cannot reconcile a God so hateful as to condemn him to everlasting torment. Maybe not a front-row seat in heaven, maybe some kind of purgatory, but not the depths of hell. I cannot preach the love of Christ and in the same breath the hatred of the upright, but misguided souls who cannot bring themselves to believe. And we cannot know anyone's mind much less their soul, especially in the moments before their death. I believe a lot can happen in those precious moments and it is not for me to judge, but to trust and pray.
Someone once said “others do not have to be wrong in order for you to be right.”. God, I believe, is big enough to manage without us telling him who will be in heaven and who shouldn't be.
Miss Mollie says
Oops! That was Anne who asked the question about what Jesus people reject. Thought provoking post and question.
Miss Mollie says
Anita, that is a good question. I think it is the teacher that is held more accountable. I always think of Jesus in John 21, when Peter asks about the “beloved disciple” He answers in my basic understanding, don't worry about him, YOU follow Me.
In Acts 10, I feel that is so clear that God, the Father, wants people to believe and follow His son and leads us by the Holy Spirit.
As we sang in church today, Jesus is the answer.
Jesus did teach on hell. It is not a pleasant place,I'm using understatement. I know it scared me as a child. I knew Jesus loved me, but I sure didn't like those passages. Did Jesus scare me out of hell?
I have been thinking and pondering on this post. I know what you are saying. I asked it as a child when the plan of salvation was explained to me in Good News Club- What about the Indians(Native Americans, now) that had no chance to hear? No one
gave me a good answer when I was young.
But a burning heart for missions filled me. My mission field is here where I live and work. I haven't left home. I feel the Holy Spirit draws people with tender chords of love. We, as followers, must be filled with the Holy Spirit and obedient to His word.
And Jesus said, “Ye must be born again.” Because you know He spoke in Elizabethan English(Smile.)
Pray for those to hear. Pray for those who tell. May what breaks God's heart break ours.
Anita Mathias says
MOLLIE, you've said it beautifully. God will find a way to reach those seeking for him.
Thanks, ANNE, and welcome to my blog.
STEPHANIE, haven't read Chan, will look it up. And thank you so much for your comment on my style. I write these last thing at night, and publish without sleeping over them, so often feel sad that my blog does not have my “best” writing.
On the other hand, trying to produce my “best” writing is a sure invitation to perfectionism!!
I just read Francis Chan's Erasing Hell, which I found refreshing in that he is honest about his struggles with the concept of hell and other scripture passages that seem horrific. While I come to the same conclusions as Chan about hell, I fully agree with you that the focus should be on Christ and his compelling love–not fear. That has created too many false fire insurance Christians.
You have a beautiful, compelling writing style, BTW!
Sally, I agree with you. Love of God in Christ Jesus extends to all.
Miss Mollie, agree with your quotes, but a question on your last sentence.
What if the Jesus about which people have heard, and who they have turned away from, is not the real Jesus, offering the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, but a human construct threatening punishment and hell?
Miss Mollie says
“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD,”I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness…Why should you die?”-Ezekiel 33:11 NLT
I think this sums it up. We must all turn to God. Irwin Lutzer believes that people are given a chance to choose to live for God. I heard that as with Nineveh, God will send a message to those seeking Him.
We may be surprised who is in Heaven and who isn't.
God wants a humble and repentant heart. I believe we must point the way to Jesus in all we do and say. That is our responsibility. The Holy Spirit does the drawing.
2 Peter 3:15 that none shall perish.
We must remember that Jesus is our righteousness, salvation is nothing we do on our own. We cannot earn it in any way. Jesus did the work; He paid the price.
I believe that God does make a way for those who have not heard to accept Him in His mysterious ways. But if you have heard and turn away from Jesus, you have made the choice.
love it, this is why I love Methodist Arminianism, the Theology of grace of God who goes before us…