Category Archives: God

People God Killed: Nadab & Abihu

Every Tuesday-Friday that classes meet at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, its professors gather at 7:45 AM for a brief time of faculty-led devotion and prayer. I am grateful for the opportunity to begin those days by meeting with colleagues to focus our hearts and minds on the Lord. I was asked to lead devotions this week. Tuesday’s devotion is below:

The idea for the week’s theme first occurred to me more than twenty years ago, but I have never taught on this topic. The title of the series is “People God Killed.”

My aim isn’t to be sensational. The Bible contains many instances in which a person dies, and the text indicates—implicitly or explicitly—that God killed the person for his sinful actions. In each case, we can learn things both about God and to apply to our lives.

Not everyone in Scripture who sins will die immediately, not every death is attributed to a person’s sinful actions, and it would be unwise to speculate about divine causes behind deaths today. Nevertheless, the Bible includes stories of people God killed, and those accounts are worth considering.

Our first example is Nadab and Abihu. Addressing the text in full would require reading all of Leviticus 10. For our purposes, I’ll read only verses 1-3. This is from the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). Lev 10:1-3,

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own firepan, put fire in it, placed incense on it, and presented unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them to do. Then fire came from the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord has spoken: I will demonstrate my holiness to those who are near me, and I will reveal my glory before all the people.’ And Aaron remained silent.

Nadab and Abihu presented “unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them to do.” It’s not entirely clear what they did wrong procedurally. What is clear is they had important roles in ministry and they failed to obey God. The fire consumed them and the Lord declared he will demonstrate his holiness to those near him and his glory to the people. What does this story teach us about God, and how can we apply it to our lives?

Early each semester in theology, I warn students of the dangers of studying theology. One of the dangers of studying God academically is familiarity. At seminary, we handle holy things. We study the holy Word of a holy God with a holy name—and we are called to live holy lives. 

Students and professors can be lulled into approaching the things of God casually because of the frequency with which we read and preach the Word, approach God in prayer, or serve others in his name. For Nadab and Abihu, familiarity with holy things led them to let down their guard and disobey God. It cost them their lives. May we guard against becoming so familiar with God that we disobey his commands.

ETS 2016 Paper in Progress: Incarnation, Change, & Trinity

ETSDuring this week of Fall Break at NOBTS, I have been working on my paper that was accepted for next month’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The title is: “Did the Incarnation Introduce Change among the Persons of the Trinity?” (Click here to read the proposal.) I was encouraged to find support for my thesis in the writings of theologians as diverse as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Wayne Grudem, among others. Consider these extended quotations:

“The passion of Jesus Christ is not an event which concerned only the human nature that the divine Logos assumed, as though it did not affect in any way the eternal placidity of the trinitarian life of God. . . . It is incorrect, of course, to speak point-blank of the death of God on the cross, as has been done since the time of Hegel. We can say only of the Son of God that he was ‘crucified, dead, and buried.’ To be dogmatically correct, indeed, we have to say that the Son of God, though he suffered and died himself, did so according to his human nature. . . . Nevertheless, we have to say that Jesus was affected by suffering and death on the cross in person, i.e., in the person of the eternal Son. . . . Nor can the Father be thought of as unaffected by the passion of his Son if it is true that God is love. . . . To this extent we may speak of the Father’s sharing of the suffering of the Son, his sym-pathy with the passion.” – Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 1:314. The word “sym-pathy” is broken in the original.

“in his human nature, Jesus died (Luke 23:46; 1 Cor. 15:3). But with respect to his divine nature, he did not die, but was able to raise himself from the dead. . . . Nevertheless, by virtue of union with Jesus’ human nature, his divine nature somehow tasted something of what it was like to go through death. The person of Christ experienced death. . . . Therefore, even though Jesus’ divine nature did not actually die, Jesus went through the whole experience of death as a whole person, and both human and divine natures somehow shared in that experience.” – Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 560. Emphasis his.

I look forward to completing this paper in order to present it and receive feedback to sharpen my thinking on the intersecting points of incarnation, change, and Trinity.

Some of the works which have informed my writing on this question include:

Augustine, On the Trinity.

Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ.

The Canons of the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Constantinople (553)

Crisp, Oliver D., and Fred Sanders, ed. Christology, Ancient & Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Crisp, Oliver D. The Word Enfleshed: Exploring the Person and Work of Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Erickson, Millard J. Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009.

Fiddes, Paul. The Creative Suffering of God. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

Ganssle, Gregory E., ed. Four Views of God and Time. Downers Grove: IVP, 2001.

Gavrilyuck, Paul L. The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought, Oxford Early Christian Studies, ed. Gillian Clark and Andrew Louth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Letham, Robert. The Message of the Person of Christ: The Word Made Flesh. The Bible Speaks Today, ed. Derek Tidball. Downers Grove: IVP, 2013.

McCall, Thomas H. Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.

McCall, Thomas H. Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.

Peckham, John C. The Love of God: A Canonical Model. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Sanders, Fred, and Klaus Issler, ed. Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007.

 

Andy Stanley on Wrong Views of God

On August 21, 2016, Andy Stanley delivered a message which I hope gains a wide audience. Stanley is the son of Dr. Charles Stanley and is the founder and pastor of North Point Community Church in Georgia. I listen to Andy Stanley’s messages occasionally and have benefitted from reading a couple of his books. This message “Gods of the No Testament” is the second in a series titled “Who Needs God.” The message is interesting because rather than presenting an explanation, illustration, and application of a particular text, Stanley attempts to overturn false ideas about God that are sometimes cited by critics of Christianity. Such criticisms of these views of God when coupled with personal tragedy sometimes results in people walking away from the Christian faith. In this message, Stanley makes the case that these views of God should be abandoned because they are not biblical views.

These wrong views of God which should be abandoned include:

The Bodyguard God – The God who never allows bad things to happen to good people. (In response, Stanley reminds listeners that Christianity is founded on the events of the cross of Christ, in which “bad things” happened to a perfect person.)

The On-Demand God – The God who responds to fair and selfless requests like we would. (Instead, God answers our requests with infinite wisdom.)

The Boyfriend/Girlfriend God – The God whose presence is always felt. (Stanley reminds us that we are least aware of what is most constant.)

The Guilt God – The God who controls people through guilt and fear; he loves but does not like people. (Stanely does not reply to this view in the message, but it might be stated that God desires repentance rather than guilt.)

The Anti-Science God – The God who requires us to live by undeniable science or unreliable religion. (Stanley explains that Christianity is based on more than simply faith; also the choice between faith and science is a false alternative.)

The Gap God – The God who is the explanation for everything we can’t explain. (Rather, God is the explanation for much in the universe that can be explained, such as design and order.)


For every view above, Stanley encourages people to stop believing in that kind of God. And he asks: Who told you God is like this? This is not the God of the Bible. Also, your life is better without belief in this type of God. Below are some brief observations on this message.

This sermon challenging weak or false views of God is needed for at least two reasons. First, these wrong views of God are held by many people who were raised in Christian homes. Such basic views of God might have been affirmed as children, but as adults these charicatures of God are wholly inadequate to deal with the complexities and challenges of the “real world.” Stanley’s criticism of these views reminds me of the classic work by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small.

Second, dismissing Christianity as a fool’s system is growing in popularity. Whether in the books and YouTube presentations by New Atheists or through the cable shows and night club routines of mainstream comedians, Christians are regularly portrayed as flat-earth, gullible fools. But frequently, the views which are lampooned deserve to be ridiculed as warped and foolish; most of those views do not accurately represent the Christian faith. For these reasons, Stanley’s message needs to be heard.

Although I encourage people to listen to the message, I cannot recommend two specific choices Stanley made in his Sunday morning sermon. First, he failed to draw attention to and explain a biblical text. He mentions this omission in his sermon, explaining that this is the second of two sermons which serve to introduce the series. In my observation, Stanley typically deals skillfully with one or more biblical texts in a message. Because faith comes by hearing God’s Word (Rom 10:13) and God’s people are fed by God’s Word (1 Pet 2:2), it is important that Sunday morning messages always involve the reading and teaching of Scripture. Second, Stanley quoted from prominent critics of Christianity, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. It can be effective to cite prominent critics in order to respond to their views. However, when a pastor quotes a person from the pulpit, some listeners will explore that person’s writings, thinking, “Well, the pastor reads this author and mentioned him in church.” Listeners who are easily swayed could be persuaded by the very arguments against the faith that the pastor is trying to challenge. With those two points of concern noted, I still recommend that people listen to this message and I look forward to hearing the other messages in the series.


(Image from the website of North Point Community Church, Alpharetta, Georgia.)

New Book on God & Cosmology

God&CosmologyMy friend and colleague at NOBTS, Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Stewart, has edited another book. What is a monumental achievement for other scholars has become a common occurrence for this professor of Philosophy and Theology. Bob has edited the following books: The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue (2006); Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski & Michael Ruse in Dialogue (2007); The Quest of the Hermeneutical Jesus: The Impact of Hermeneutics on the Jesus Research of John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright (2008); The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue (2008); Memories of Jesus: A Critical Appraisal of James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, edited with Gary Habermas (2010); The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue (2011); The Message of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and Ben Witherington III in Dialogue (2013); Can Only One Religion Be True? Paul Knitter and Harold Netland in Dialogue (2013); served as general editor of B&H Studies in Christian Apologetics, Jeremy Evans, The Problem of Evil: The Challenge to Essential Christian Beliefs (2013); and he has contributed to several other works, including the Cambridge Dictionary of Christianity. Also, Bob has several books in the pipeline.

His latest release, God and Cosmology: William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll in Dialogue (Fortress Press, 2016), is a compilation of essays from the 2014 Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum. Funded by donations from William and Carolyn Heard, the annual forum “is designed to provide a venue in which respected scholars of differing opinions dialogue on critical issues in religion, science, philosophy, and/or culture from their differing perspectives.” (Click here for more information on this annual forum, including future speakers and dates.)

Stewart explains in the first chapter, “The primary question in this book is this: Does the evidence of contemporary cosmology render God’s existence more probable than it would have been without it?” (p. 3). The leading contributors to the book are Sean Carroll, research professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, and William Lane Craig, professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University. Also contributing chapters are: Robin Collins, Tim Maudlin, Alex Rosenberg, Robert Stewart, and James Sinclair.

Videos of the 2014 Greer-Heard presentations are available on YouTube. Even so, the book is a valuable resource for several reasons. First, Stewart’s introduction sets up the discussion, and that content was not presented during the forum. Second, Maudlin’s essay in the book is slightly different than the paper he presented at the forum. Third, the footnotes allow readers to track down sources, substantiate claims, and glean information not provided in the body of the text. Fourth, it is helpful to slow down and re-read the complex arguments in the book.

Philosophers, cosmologists, theologians, and students, regardless of their religious perspective, will benefit from this interaction among Carroll, Craig, and others on the universe and the probability of the existence of God.

Did the Incarnation Introduce Change among the Persons of the Trinity?

ETSToday is the paper proposal deadline for the 68th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, which will meet November 15-17, 2016, in San Antonio, Texas. Its website explains: “Founded in 1949, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) is a group of scholars, teachers, pastors, students, and others dedicated to the oral exchange and written expression of theological thought and research.” I have been a member of ETS since 2003, and have presented seven papers at regional or national meetings. (For a list, see the Presentations section here.)

This year’s theme is the Trinity. I have submitted a paper proposal and expect to hear in June whether the proposal has been accepted. If the selection committee accepts the proposal, then I will plan to write the paper this summer and deliver it in November. This is my proposal:


Did the Incarnation Introduce Change among the Persons of the Trinity?

Premise 1: A person who was born, then grew, learned, suffered, and died is a person who experienced change.
Premise 2: Jesus is a two-natured person who was born, then grew, learned, suffered, and died. Conclusion: Jesus is a two-natured person who experienced change.

If change includes introducing a person to new relations or experiences, then the incarnation of the Word, or the addition of true humanity to the eternal Son of God, introduced change among the persons of the Trinity. At the incarnation, the Son of God was born of a woman (John 1:14; Gal 4:4). As a result of the incarnation, the Son grew (Luke 2:52), learned obedience by his suffering (Heb 5:8), and died (1 Cor 15:3). These verbs—born, grew, learned, suffered, and died—are predicated in the New Testament to the person of Christ, and they refer to acts which the Son had not previously experienced in time. Because of the interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity (Perichoresis), the Father and Spirit participated in some way with the Son in these new relations and experiences in time. The following issues will be considered when developing this paper:

• While God is unchanging in his character, the incarnation of the eternal Son resulted in the introduction of new relations and experiences among the persons of the Trinity.
• Although proper distinctions should be maintained between Christ’s two natures, those natures were united in one person. Should death and resurrection be ascribed to only the human nature of Christ, or to the person?
• Christian thinkers affirm different views of God’s relationship to time.
• How might the possibility of OT Christophanies affect the present thesis?

In the paper, I will interact with the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Millard Erickson, Paul Fiddes, Jürgen Moltmann, and others.


I welcome any feedback on the proposal.

Book Notes: February

This post highlights three biblical-theological books I read this month, two of which I recommend. I will not review the books, but will provide a brief description and mention each book’s significance.

Thornhill

In The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second-Temple Judaism (IVP Academic, 2015), Chad Thornhill, chair of theological studies at Liberty University, explores extra-biblical Jewish literature of Paul’s era to answer the question, “How did Paul understand election?” I highly recommend this careful, academic work. Dr. Thornhill has agreed to speak about this book and answer questions at a guest presentation at NOBTS on April 7. More information about that event will be available soon.

Peckham

John C. Peckham serves associate professor of theology and Christian philosophy at the Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. His book, The Love of God: A Canonical Model (IVP Academic, 2015), presents two theological models (basically classical theism and process theology) then attempts to answer five key questions about the love of God from a third model. Peckham’s alternative is the foreconditional-reciprocal model, which he develops from a “final-canon form approach to systematic theology.” Although I do not affirm every conclusion in his book, I greatly appreciate and endorse his method, which seeks to answer theological questions from the pages of the Bible rather than by presupposing theological frameworks which might or might not accurately reflect the teaching of the Bible.

Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014) inspired a recent point-counterpoint forum at NOBTS, featured in this Baptist Press article. Because it is a New York Times bestseller, this book (or the views it contains) might make it to members of local churches. For that reason, it is important for church leaders and scholars to understand Ehrman’s arguments and prepare a response. The author clearly denies that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who died to provide salvation for sinners. Other examples of Ehrman’s views include: Jesus never claimed to be God, we cannot know what happened to the body of Jesus, and Jesus was eventually “made” God by the embellished stories of his later followers. Although Ehrman is a serious academician and his work deserves a response from both the church and the academy, I cannot recommend this book to readers who are not already familiar with the arguments of scholars such as: Richard Bauckham, James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, Larry Hurtado, Simon Gathercole, James McGrath, and Michael Bird.

Note: I received no compensation in any way for mentioning the books in this post.

Is God Like the Terrorists?

For those who form opinions about blog posts after reading only the title and opening sentence, my answer is no.

Yesterday, I read a comment on social media which compared the actions of God, who casts some into hell, with the actions of ISIS terrorists, who burn their victims. The Tweet states, “I hope you won’t watch the ISIS burning video, but if you do, ask yourself: is God like the terrorists, or is God like the victim?”

I do not have a relationship with the author of that comment, but I follow him on Twitter because I appreciate his writings at Patheos. Since he is a doctoral student at a respected, evangelical seminary, I wondered if I misunderstood his comment. I asked for clarification, “Are you referring to the doctrine of hell?”

He replied: “Yes, but ECT (eternal, conscious torment) in particular.”

So, his comparison is:

  1. Terrorists burn people.
  2. In the traditional view of hell, God burns people.
  3. Therefore, in the traditional view of hell, God acts like a terrorist.

I have not identified the author of the comment, because I have no desire to engage in an online dispute. Instead, I simply want to reflect on the comparison he suggested.

I am aware of objections to the traditional view of hell, and present and critique the arguments of evangelical Universalists and Annihilationists in the Systematic Theology courses I teach at NOBTS. Universalists teach that God eventually saves all through Christ, and Annihilationists teach that God eventually annihilates the unrepentant. Although I have exegetical and theological reasons for rejecting their conclusions, I will not attempt to present those arguments in this post. Rather, I will simply identify with the traditional view of hell, which affirms that God’s final judgment entails the eternal, conscious torment of the unrepentant.[1] My goal in this post is to explain how it is consistent to simultaneously affirm hell as eternal conscious torment and to deny that in such a view, God acts like a terrorist.

First, all reasonable people (whether or not they affirm any major world religion) should regard the actions of ISIS terrorists burning humans alive to be morally repugnant. It is just and right to label the actions of the terrorists as evil and as sin for which they should repent and can be forgiven by God through Christ.

Second, comparing God to the terrorists fails to account for the radical differences between a holy and loving creator who exacts just judgment upon the unrepentant, and sinful and fallen people who inflict unjust punishment upon innocent victims. Affirming both God’s holiness and the authority of Scripture can lead us to affirm certain views which offend our sensibilities.

In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord.” The next verse states, “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (verses 1-2, ESV). The deaths of these two sons of Aaron might seem harsh by our standards. But a reasonable interpretation of that story is that those men had weighty responsibilities in representing the people before a holy God, and God took their lives because of their sinful actions. Was this the action of a terrorist? No. This was the action of a holy God.

Consider also holy war in the Old Testament, when the Hebrew army was commanded to destroy certain groups. As examples, see Deut 13:15–17 and Joshua 6:2. Although Christians do not affirm holy wars or genocide, we also do not accuse God of acting like Hitler.[2]

Even in our legal system, the same action can be considered right when committed by one person but wrong when committed by another person. If I shoot a man without cause, that action would be wrong. But if a police officer shoots a man with cause, then the action would be regarded as justified. The same action is judged differently when it is carried out by different actors in different circumstances. Similarly, God and ISIS terrorists are different actors in different circumstances. God is holy and His ways are always just. Terrorists, like the rest of us, are not holy and their ways are sometimes corrupt. Christians affirm that God’s actions are just, whether we consider His taking the lives of Aaron’s sons, commanding the extermination of a group who lived in the Promised Land, or judging the unrepentant by consigning them to eternal conscious torment. None of those affirmations are pleasant, but they are all consistent with affirming both the holiness of God and the authority of His Word.

Many of us who read the Bible are persuaded that the parables and warnings of Jesus, along with other statements by New Testament writers, portray this future judgment of sin, death, and Satan, as including eternal conscious torment. And Jesus, who gave Himself for us, will one day justly judge the unrepentant. The comparison between the God of the traditional view of hell and the actions of ISIS terrorists confuses holiness and justice with sin and injustice.

The proper image of holiness and justice portrays Jesus, who died on the cross for our sin. Out of love, God provided for us what His holiness demanded, a perfect and human sacrifice for our sin. In this way, the God of the traditional view of hell is not like terrorists. Instead, He is the God of love, holiness, and justice.


[1] For a biblical-theological case for the traditional view of hell, see Hell Under Fire, ed. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

[2] See Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) and Heath Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan, eds. Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).