August 2008

“One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God” (Frederick Buechner, “Incarnation,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, 1993: 52).

A few weeks ago I was shocked—shocked, I tell you!—to read that a professor at a seminary up north had written that the Bible is both divine and human. Really? I never heard that before! What awful heretic would say such a thing?

The criminal is named Peter Enns, a tenured fourteen-year veteran of the faculty at Westminster Seminary in Pennsylvania. He was suspended from teaching, then forced to leave his post, by the trustees. Why? For trying to help his students “grapple with recent scholarship suggesting contradictions in the Bible” through his 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation. Apparently, the man’s opinions “defied the school’s founding principle” that the “Scripture is solely the word of God,” something supposedly taught by the Westminster Confession (“Theology Professor leaving traditionalist seminary over claims,” Starkville Daily News, August 2, 2008: A2).

I guess the trustees didn’t get the memo: this the 21st century, not the 17th! We have much more pressing problems than determining the nature of the Bible. Like the environment, poverty, war, imperial ambitions of leaders, corporate greed, fear, hatred in the name of God, ignorance, and on and on. Isn’t it much better to do what the Bible teaches than to keep wrangling over what it is? But I guess some people would rather keep stirring the pot of the old battles than help find solutions to the very real theological issues facing us today.

I am appalled at the trustees’ refusal to give a professor a little slack to help students understand “recent” (since 1900?) scholarship. I am disturbed that they have had their collective heads stuck in the theological sand. But there’s something that bothers me even more than such matters.

These men (and given their theological bent, I’m sure they’re all men) dismissed Dr. Enns for allegedly being unorthodox. But in my opinion it is they themselves who are guilty of heresy, one of the oldest around. It’s called “Docetism” and is essentially a denial of the true humanity of Jesus. In other words, the Docetics did not believe God really “became flesh,” incarnate.

The ancient church, against the Docetics, affirmed that our Lord was not a god pretending to be human. Instead, in Jesus the eternal and uncontainable God chose to enter fully into human life—growing, learning, hurting, sweating, eating, drinking, laughing, working, befriending, and ultimately, dying. Jesus was not born knowing everything nor did he in the cradle uphold the universe by the word of his power, as a seminary professor of mine once nonsensically put it. The truth is much more astounding: God made himself fully known in the midst of human life as one of us! The word Jesus spoke was a fully human word, conditioned by its time and place, but also and for that reason the Word of God. God does not speak in the abstract, but always in the concrete, so that his message of comfort and hope, judgment and challenge, grace and generosity may reach and touch us in our real lives.

It’s not a stretch at all to say that if the Living Word of God, Jesus, comes to us this way, so does the Word of God Written, the Bible. God is not so limited or unimaginative that he cannot communicate his perfect Word through the stories, poetry, songs, letters, and visions of real human beings who thought their own thoughts, edited their own work, and picked and chose among sources. No matter how the viewpoints may vary across centuries and authors, no matter how rife with contradictions and inconsistencies the work may be, no matter how the sometimes abhorrent customs and foolish notions of people are reflected in the text, it is God who speaks!

A boardroom full of scared men firing a professor who dared to speak his mind can’t change the way God works. I think I read that in the Bible.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham


This is the second of two posts dedicated to the memory of my sister Carol Ann, who joined the Church Triumphant on August 7, 2008. “Blessed are the dead who…die in the Lord…. [T]hey will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” (Revelation 14:13).

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).

“But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:23-26).

There’s a common belief, particularly among conservative evangelicals, that “God is in control.” A praise song by that name, seeking to reinforce the conviction, repeats that sentence over and over without many other lyrics. And indeed it’s great comfort to be sure that someone knows what’s going on in the midst of this mess in which we find ourselves.

But a problem arises when we try to apply to specific situations the general idea that God reigns over chaos and disorder. “God sent this (fill in horrible problem here) to test us/me/them.” “God brought this tsunami/tornado/flood/terrorist attack to punish/teach a lesson/give us the opportunity to serve.” “God caused Carol Ann to get cancer.”

What sort of perverse, demented, sadistic deity would do such things? And how can anyone possibly derive comfort from that kind of belief? Why would anybody worship a god like that? We have fought wars to rid the world of dictators who do such horrid things to their people, yet we are willing to think someone with no better moral character runs the universe? We condemn abusive parents, yet when God does the same things, we defend him and say we must submit to “God’s will” (as if we know what that is)?

Fortunately, the truth is much more complex and ultimately, more satisfying. Carol Ann knew that. Even during the darkest days of suffering before her death, she insisted “God didn’t do this.” Indeed not. The God we know in Jesus Christ is the One who gives good gifts to his children. Bread, not a stone. An egg, not a scorpion. Fish, not a snake. Hope that nourishes body and soul. The cleansing water of baptism that refreshes and renews. People we can love and who love us. God does not send or cause disasters or sickness or hurt, no matter how much our desire for the simplest answer might lead us to believe or want to believe that. He is not some ancient, capricious, demanding deity like Moloch or Baal. The God we worship is the One who gives “all good things around us,” as the song from Godspell put it, whose will for us is wholeness and joy.

But right now the reality of our lives is quite often brokenness and sickness, and, for all of us, sooner or later, death. If God’s wants us to be whole and happy, then what is he doing to make that happen? Why isn’t he acting to end suffering?

The text above from 1 Corinthians assures us that he is doing something, but we may not see the results in our lives or for many generations. God, or more specifically, the exalted Christ, is fighting a war, and the end is not yet. The conflict is open-ended and ongoing. The only sure thing is that one day it will end in favor of our Lord. But when that will be, no one knows. Right now the rulers, authorities, and powers fight as hard as they can to resist the rule of Christ. What Paul means by those terms are any human constructs like companies, governments, churches, customs, and traditions, as well as people themselves, that seek to deform and destroy, create chaos, keep neighbors apart and hating each other or that perpetrate any other demonic act we might think of. He also includes all those hurtful and hateful things like suffering, sickness, futility, and, of course, death. (See Romans 8:18-39).

I’ve always liked an historical analogy I heard years ago. A scholar compared the resurrection of Christ to D-Day in WWII. When the Allies invaded German-held Europe on June 6, 1944, the end was assured. The decisive battles fought on the Normandy beaches and the subsequent advance across France meant that the Germans would ultimately lose. But the end of WWII in Europe did not come until May of the following year. There were still many deaths on both sides, a German counter-attack, devastating air raids on German cities, and attempts by the Germans to field secret wonder weapons to try to turn the tide back in their favor. Even after the war was over and Germany was occupied, there was an insurgency that tried to fight back.

So it is that God right now is fighting a war against the insurgents who refuse to accept the defeat of their leader, Death, in the resurrection of Jesus. There are pockets of resistance that are hard to put down. The battle rages the world over, and sometimes God loses. The defeat could be in a skirmish, when someone is cruel to his or her neighbor. Or there might be loss in a major battle, when cancer or AIDS or combat claims another victim. Sometimes there is pyrrhic victory, when the conflict is won only at great cost to the forces of God.

To an honest observer, it looks like God is going to lose the war, despite his power, the skill of his soldiers, and the extent of his resources. I thought of that the other night as I watched a beach volleyball game between the American team of Rogers and Dalhausser and two very determined Swiss players. The former had won the first set, but then gave up the second. In the third, they were down by 6-0. Surely such a deficit could not be made up. But they came back, playing to several ties, before finally defeating the frustrated Swiss by two.

This is how God’s struggle against Death plays out. Sometimes the fight is desperate, and we cannot believe the end in God’s favor is assured. But then our Lord roars back, battling his arch-enemy, a determined foe. One day Death will be destroyed. God will ultimately gain control. Ultimately. But not yet.

How then are to we to regard my sister’s death if God did not cause it? Carol Ann was a casualty of war. Hail the fallen warrior! Requiescat in pacem.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

This post is dedicated to the memory of my sister Carol Ann, who died August 7, 2008 at age 50 from cancer. It is adapted from a meditation I shared at her funeral.

Most of my life, I’ve been an academic type, living from my head, and rarely saying “I don’t know.” Not wanting to waste time, I got started early being arrogant. As a kid, I swore my grandma up and down that a spider was an arachnid, not an insect. Yes, a spider is an arachnid; but to paraphrase Bonhoeffer, facts are not truth if in speaking them we don’t respect relationships.

I think I was in college when Carol Ann finally got fed up with my know-it-all attitude and decided to put me told. She could be direct if she wanted to, but this time she was subtle. I don’t remember the occasion—perhaps it was Christmas or my birthday—but she gave me a little wooden plaque, 3×5 or maybe 4×6, that simply said “All knowledge is from God.” Translation: “You ain’t all that. Once in awhile say you don’t know.”

So let me practice saying what my sister encouraged and invited me to say. If you should ask me why there are people of advanced age who long to die but cannot, while a woman of 50 who struggled mightily against her disease should succumb to it: “I don’t know.” Why I should lose my sister who in spite of myself continued to love and respect me: “I don’t know.” Why our parents should have to say goodbye to their daughter, when, as Dave Matthews once sang, “No one should have to bury their own babies” (“Gravedigger”): “I don’t know.” Why her son on the edge of adolescence and her daughter emerging into adulthood should be without a mother at such critical times in their lives: “I don’t know.” Why her husband should be bereft of the love of his life and the mother of his children: “I don’t know.”

But I have come to believe that in the long run knowing is not so important as being known: opening your soul to another’s gaze, sharing secrets with someone you trust, being vulnerable enough to love and be loved. By friends and family. By God.

Carol Ann understood all that, a fact evidenced by the crowd at her funeral. They were people who respected and loved her for her compassion and openness, her example of joyful contentment with what she had. She knew what was important. And she reminded us all by her never-faltering faith that if we must claim to know something, simply say this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham