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Origen, Barth, and Bell: Theological Perspectives on Hell and Universalism

Let me begin by making two statements: 1. I have read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.  2. I am not interested in giving a long critique of the book.  Several people have already written good ones, and another review from my perspective would add nothing to the conversation.  What I want to do here is attempt to answer the question, “Is Rob Bell saying anything different than what Origen and Karl Barth claimed?”  In the last month I have heard Bell’s view of hell likened to both of these men as well as C.S. Lewis.  (I cannot, however, speak to Lewis’ view b/c – to my shame – I have only read the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity).  Ironically, if you Google image “Universalism” both Origen and Bell’s pictures show up.  Origen was excommunicated for some of his teaching, being accused of saying that even the devil might have a shot at redemption.  At the end of Barth’s life he often had to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Universalist.  Is there any correlation between these men?

Origen

The notion that Origen taught that all people would be saved, including the possibility of Satan, has been around for some time.  The reality is that Origen was much more “orthodox” than what he is given credit for.  According to the historian, Justo Gonzales, Origen proposed many doctrines, not necessarily as truths to be generally accepted, nor as things that would supersede the clear doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculation, which was not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church.  He was in line with what was considered orthodox for his day.  It is unfair to take later matters settled by the church (some several hundred years later), and then look back on his teachings and scold him for wrestling with them.  However, the question is whether or not Origen taught that all men would eventually be saved, even Satan.  The answer is that he postulated some type of universal reconciliation because of his view of free will, but never affirmed it as orthodox or in line with Scripture. In his book, First Principles (1.8.4), he says, “So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil.”  Once in hell, the choice to choose otherwise will never be exercised because the will of man will not choose otherwise.  Concerning the possible salvation of Satan, Origen did not teach the possibility that he would be saved.  In a debate with a man named Candidus, Origen was defending his notion of free will, and said that Satan could be saved if he wanted, but that he would not be saved because of his choice to live in rebellion. Origen’s point was that Satan did not want salvation because his free will choice.  He writes in a letter defending himself against the above accusation, that anyone who would claim that Satan would be saved was a “madman.”  Although he was labeled a heretic in 399 by a council in Alexandria, and then excommunicated as heretic by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, Henri Crouzel says this was more from the musings of Origen’s followers than Origen himself.  Origen postulated a reconciliation of all things, but did not affirm it as orthodox.  He also did not teach any type of post-mortem changing of the heart.  Although he wanted to defend the notion of free will, he affirmed that the reprobate’s will was fixed in sin and rebellion.

Barth

When it comes to nailing down Karl Barth on the issue…good luck!  According to Oliver Crisp and Geoffrey Bromiley (translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English) his theology cannot escape the accusation.  Karl Barth taught that Jesus Christ was both the subject and object of election.  As the subject he is the electing God.  As the object he is the elect man.  Simply, Barth sees Jesus as the representative of all men, not only some of them.  (He had a major beef with Calvinism!)  If Jesus represented all men, took the condemnation that was to fall on all men, then the logical conclusion of Barth’s theology would be that all men would be saved.  This is what Barth hoped for.  The problem is that he wasn’t sure it would happen.  When asked if he was a Universalist, he denied the label.  Furthermore, he taught that although all men were elected in Christ, their election still had to be actualized through the exercise of faith, and that the gospel had to be preached if there was any hope for man.  Thus, in the end you can take one of two approaches with Barth.  You can side with Oliver Crisp, who says that Barth was either a Universalist or incoherent in his doctrine.  Or, you can opt for George Hunsinger’s view that Barth was not a Universalist but an agnostic.  He simply left the question open ended with a strong tilt towards universal hope.

Bell

So where is Bell?  Again, good luck.  I think he wants to keep the free will of Origen, and the hope of universal reconciliation like Barth.  Unlike both of these men, however, he seems to go further and claim a definitive reconciliation of all people, including post-mortem redemption.  If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book.  He redefines the term aion to refer to an “intense experience,” not a period of time with beginning and end (by the way, it’s never good to get one definition of a word and apply it to all uses of that word) (57).  Going so far as to say that, “forever is not really a category biblical writers use” (92) Thus, hell is not forever in the sense of time.  It’s just a “period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction” (91).  Hell can be now, on earth, as we reject God’s way and God’s story of love.  Hell can be a place we go to after death.  The picture John gives us in Revelation, however, is of a city with open gates in which people can “come and go.”  Bell suggests that if someone dies and goes to hell and is finally overcome by the goodness of God in Christ and repents, it is possible that God will let them into heaven whose gates are always open.  (I wonder if that also means those in heaven can leave?)  Hell, even one of their own making, has finally pruned their resistance.  He says that Christians should long for this (111) and admit that these questions “are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires”(115).  If he is genuine in this statement, he affirms that he’s not sure if there is a universal reconciliation.  (If he’s wrong, though, doesn’t it end really badly for people?!)  Furthermore, Bell is not a traditional Universalist (i.e. everyone gets in regardless of what they want).  However, he seems to be advocating a type of Christian Universalism.  Jesus is necessary.  Everyone gets in, but everyone gets in only because of the sacrifice of Jesus.  In this sense Bell is exclusive.  Also, the sacrifice of Jesus was inclusive of all.  Bell says that “Jesus does declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155).   He also says that people just might not be aware that it is Jesus doing this for them (155).  Buddhist will use a different name.  Muslim’s will say Allah.  In this case, the gospel in the Bible is not the only way to heaven (i.e. Believe this or you don’t get in).  Jesus is the only way, and the Christian church (especially those that mix the warning of eternal conscious judgment in hell with grace) doesn’t get to lay claim on the only exclusive message.  The message is really love.  So although Bell is not a traditional Universalist, he does appear to be advocating a view of Universalism (i.e. an Exclusive (Jesus alone) Inclusivist (Everybody) Pluralist (Many Ways to Understand) Universalism) that puts the love of God and the cross of Christ squarely in the middle of every persons salvation.  This allows him to have some vague tie to evangelical Christianity, even though his definitions behind the terms create something new.

If I’m reading Bell correctly, there is indeed a piece of continuity between his view and those of Origen and Barth.  There is the hope of universal reconciliation.  I think that all Christians would hope for what these men hoped for, the salvation of all men.  At that point our desires would be in line with God’s.  However, in the end Bell is very different from Barth and Origen.  Bells view is different from Origen b/c he postulates, not a fixed will of rebellion in hell, but the possibility that the will may always change, even post-mortem.  Origen may have questioned, but never considered it an “orthodox view” as Bell does.  Origen also never separated salvation from the Christian gospel or thought that the beliefs of Roman pagan religions were somehow coterminous with the gospel of Jesus.  Bell is different from Barth in that Barth never separates salvation from a choice that is made in the here and now.  Barth never spoke of a hell as a time of “pruning.”  More pointedly Barth never called for a softening of the biblical text or a “better story” that excluded judgment or widened itself to encompass other religions (Neither did Paul in Acts 17).  If anything Barth called for more proclamation and the indiscriminate preaching of the unique Christian gospel (not a widening of it) along with a warning for those who rejected it.  They hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it.  In the end, neither Origen nor Barth, say what Bell is now saying.

Mommy, John Calvin is calling me names!!!!!!!!

I’m spending part of this semester wrestling with the doctrine of infant baptism.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist tradition so for most of my life my stance has been pretty defined by my upbringing.  I can sum it up this way: Credobaptism = good and biblical; Paedobaptism = bad and unbiblical.  Keep in mind I’m not saying that it is right (or wrong) yet.  I’ll let you know in another month.  However, imagine my surprise several years ago when I found out that John Calvin was a Paedobaptist, even arguing against my extended family the Anabaptists (and he wasn’t even a Roman Catholic at the time!!!).  Talk about conundrum.

So I decided last Friday to finally engage with Mr. Calvin.  We argued for almost three hours.  He is very smart…and tricky!  Every time I had at my disposal an argument to dispatch his  defense of infant baptism, he would take it up in his work a paragraph later and challenge me.  Now what really surprised me was not that he was  intelligent and anticipated my every argument, it was how he argued with me.  I tried being cordial (only putting exclamation marks next to a few comments), and he responded by calling me the following names:

  1. A frenzied spirit and disturber of the church
    • “But since in this age, certain frenzied spirits have raised, and even now continue to raise, great disturbance in the Church on account of paedobaptism, I cannot avoid here, by way of appendix, adding something to restrain their fury.”
  2. A Hard Hearted Person
    • “See the quibbles to which men are obliged to have recourse when they have hardened themselves against the truth!”
  3. Stupid – this one really hurt!
    • “But God furnishes us with other weapons to repress their stupidity.”
  4. A Furious Madman
    • “Let us now discuss the arguments by which some furious madmen cease not to assail this holy ordinance of God.”
  5. A Barbarian Destroyer of Scripture
    • “In asserting a difference of covenant, with what barbarian audacity do they corrupt and destroy scripture?”
  6. A Trickster who Cloaks Falsehood as Truth
    • “But lest they should blind the simple with their smoke, we shall, in passing, dispose of one objection by which they cloak this most impudent falsehood.”
  7. Deluded and Lazy
    • “Hence it cannot but happen that they are every now and then deluded, because they do not exert themselves to obtain a full knowledge of any subject.”
  8. Absurd
    • “And, indeed, if we listen to the absurdities of those men, what will become of the promise by which the Lord, in the second commandment of his law, engages to be gracious to the seed of his servants for a thousand generations (Ex. 20:6)?”
  9. Ridiculous and void of Reason
    • “The distinctions which these men attempt to draw between baptism and circumcision are not only ridiculous, and void of all semblance of reason, but at variance with each other.”

WOW!!!  And I’m only half way through this particular treatise.  In light of all the recent Rob Bell discussion, I wondered if John Calvin would be welcomed into much debate today.  He would not be thought loving, tender, or politically correct enough for many who want to classify any type of strong disagreement as sinful judgment.  I would know….he’s the one calling me names.

The Theology and God of Lady GaGa

She is one of the most interesting/disturbing pop culture figures today.  She is likened to other pop divas as Brittney Spears, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera, but has cut out a name for herself in her own right.  She wears dresses made of raw meat and has one of the most eclectic wardrobes of all time.  Every song she produces is a number one hit and I can guarantee that almost every person from the ages of 8-35 (respectively) knows of her or about her.

What you may not have known about Lady Gaga is that she is a theologian!  It may surprise some, but she has a view of God, informed by some type of sources, and she teaches a particular doctrine(s).  Her latest song, Born This Way, which has stood in the number one spot on iTunes since being released, is called the “Manifesto of Mother Monster,” making it a type of creed for people to live by.  The entire song has two goals: 1) To get people to love and accept themselves as they are, and 2) To get people to be love and accept others as they are.  The logical reasoning for this acceptance is found in the chorus:

I’m beautiful in my way,
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way

Don’t hide yourself in regret,
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way
(Born this way)

Sounds like a decent message.  She brings God into the equation, and does make an appropriate and true statement about him, “God makes no mistakes.”  What Christian can argue with that message?  To argue anything other than that is to accuse God of making mistakes, being ignorant of what is going on in the world, and unable to govern his universe.  We know from Scripture, however, that God is infinite, wise, all-powerful, and accomplishes exactly what he wants.  He truly makes no mistakes.

She makes another partially true statement about “being born” the way you are.  If you’re white, black, brown, American, Chinese, or Lebanese God caused you to be born this way.  Again, true.  We know from Acts 17:26-27 that God established the boundaries of men, allotted them the periods of time they would live in, and what nationality they would be.  Who could argue that from the womb they got to plead a case for where they wanted to be born, or what nationality they wanted to be, or what language they wanted to speak.  No, God did that and according to Paul he did it in the hope that men would seek him.

Where Lady Gaga goes wrong is in saying that there is no distinction between nationality and sin.  If God makes no mistakes, and God is in control of your nationality and time of birth, then God also made you lesbian, gay, straight, or bisexual.  Our acceptance of one’s nationality or gender, should be no different from our acceptance of their sexuality.  What Lady Gaga fails to consider, however, is that although God makes no mistakes, man makes plenty of them and has been doing so since the Garden of Eden.  Is it a sin to be African American?  No.  Is it a sin to be a white male?  No.  Is it a sin to be a female from Argentina?  No.   Is it a sin to be lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or a sexually immoral heterosexual?  Yes.  When it comes to nationality or gender, you have no choice.  When it comes to your sexuality you do, and the Bible is clear when it comes to this issue.

Why does a pop song matter?  It matters because everyone is a theologian.  And the question is not whether or not a person has a theological grid for understanding who God is.  The question is whether or not the Bible and the person and work of Jesus Christ inform that theological grid.  Lady Gaga is training/discipling/preaching to culture and the people in your church, especially students, to grid their view of God and others through a particular lens, one of love and acceptance.  And that grid is extremely popular in our day!  That’s not necessarily a bad thing to call people to.  Christians should be calling each other to love people.  However, the danger is that this grid does not take into account the justice of God, the reality of sin, the brokenness of man, the wrath of God against sin, or the desire of God to forgive sinners in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  She’s mixing truth with the cyanide of lie, and great hosts of people are drinking the juice.

If Lady Gaga is right, then it is not sinful for a man to be an alcoholic who beats his wife.  After all, God made me to love alcohol and hate women.  I was born this way.  It’s not a sin to molest little children.  After all someone’s sexual preference for small children would be no different from the lesbian, gay, or heterosexual persons.  Just ask the North American Man/Boy Association.  They were born that way.  And if you’re really going to buy into the god of Gaga, then not only do you simply need to love and accept yourself for being this way, but all of us who disagree with your lifestyle simply need to be more accepting.  If Lady Gaga would disagree with me, that in fact pedophilia and spousal abuse is evil (sin?), then it would be appropriate to ask her on what authority she stands, and why we should believe her?   At this point, please spare me the argument about genetic DNA that shows certain propensities towards certain actions.  All I have to say to that is, welcome to the human race.  We all have those, and it doesn’t make one’s particular actions any more right/good, or them any less responsible for their choices.

According to Scripture however, we learn that God makes no mistakes, he is sovereignly ruling his creation, and that sin has entered and corrupted what was good.  What the creation hates is that the Creator God gets to define what sin is.  Since a rebellious creation does not like his definition, it attempts to redefine and write its own.  The good thing is that God will not stand for his creation rebelling against him and destroying itself, so he intervenes.  He models what love really is by sending his own Son to make right what was made wrong and restore relationship.  In this God shows his love and acceptance towards sinners (really horrible ones as well, just ask Paul), and his absolute hatred of sin.  There is such a thing as sin, God gets to say what it is, it will be accounted for, and everyone will have to deal with Jesus.  We were “born this way.”  This way is broken and needs redemption.  Thank God that we have a redeemer.  It is the height of arrogance, rebellion, and stupidity to rejoice in a sin sick state, when the remedy has been provided.   Praise God that although we were “born this way,” we don’t have to stay in it.

A Dangerous Life of Costly Grace

For those of you with a theological man-crush on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this is your day.  On February 4, 1906 he was born in Breslau, Germany.  He became a prolific leader in the German church and was actively involved in opposing the Nazi regime.  Believing that Hitler was like a madman “driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders,” he joined an assassination plot to kill him.  Refusing to flee to the refuge of America he was arrested, placed in a concentration camp, and finally hanged just days before Allied troops liberated the camp where he was held.  He is the author of The Cost of Discipleship and Letters from Prison as well as a host of other books that are still influencing the church today.  Speaking of the cost of grace, he writes:

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.  Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.  Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

The Day the Heroes Died

On January 31, 1561 the Anabaptist leader Menno Simons, for whom Mennonites are named, died in Wustenfeld, Germany.  Menno Simons grew up and became a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.  Although he learned some Greek and Latin while studying the Latin Church Father’s he confesses that he never studied the Bible out of fear that he would be adversely affected by it, even after initially becoming a priest in the Church.  He referred to this period of his life as stupid.  Upon hearing of the beheading of a “re-baptizer,” Simons began to study the Scriptures and came to believe that infant baptism was nowhere to be found in the Bible.   On January 12, 1536 he rejected the Catholic Church’s teaching and became a prominent leader in the Anabaptist movement.   William Estep refers to the Anabaptist’s as having three periods: Before Menno, Under Menno, and After Menno.

Likewise, on January 31, 1892, the “Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the greatest public preachers of his day, died at Mentone, France.  Although he never attended theological school, he was the most popular preacher in London by the age of twenty-one.  To this day he is still one of the most prominently read pastors in the Church.   During his life he not only was a pastor, but a songwriter, book author, editor of a monthly church magazine, founder of a pastor’s college, and an orphanage manager.  Concerning the gravity of preaching and the conversion of the lost, Spurgeon said:

“Often, when I come in at the door and my eyes fall on this vast congregation, I feel a tremor go through me to think that I should have to speak to you all and be, in some measure, accountable for your future state. Unless I preach the Gospel faithfully and with all my heart, your blood will be required at my hands. Do not wonder, therefore, that when I am weak and sick, I feel my head swim when I stand up to speak to you, and my heart is often faint within me. But I do have this joy at the back of it all— God does set many sinners free in this place! Some people reported that I was mourning that there were no conversions. Brothers and Sisters, if you were all to be converted tonight, I should mourn for the myriads outside! That is true, but I praise the Lord for the many who are converted here. When I came last Tuesday to see converts, I had 21 whom I was able to propose to the Church—and it will be the same next Tuesday, I do not doubt. God is saving souls! I am not preaching in vain. I am not despondent about that matter—liberty is given to the captives and there will be liberty for some of them, tonight! I wonder who it will be? Some of you young women over yonder, I trust. Some who have dropped in here, tonight, for the first time. Oh, may this first opportunity of your hearing the Word in this place be the time of beginning a new life which shall never end—a life of holiness, a life of peace with God!”

 

The Heidelberg Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism was written and approved by the Synod of Heidelberg on January 19, 1563.  The catalyst for the writing of this document was Frederick III, the sovereign of the Palatinate from 1559 to 1576.  He wanted to combine the best of Lutheran and Reformed teaching in a manner that would be easily accessible to the people of his territory.  He also wanted to counteract the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and so the Heidelberg Catechism based each of its statements on Scripture.  It consists of fifty-two sections (one section to be read on each Lord’s day) and has 129 questions and answers dealing with the fall of man, his redemption, and proper response to the Lord.  It became one of the most popular Reformed Catechism’s and was used extensively by Reformed churches in several different countries.  Its influence reached the Westminster Assembly who used it in the formation of the Shorter Catechism.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Augustine and Challenges From the Dead

Over the course of my last two years in Seminary at Western I have been struck by the importance of knowing and being anchored to church history.  Being intimately acquainted with what those who have run the race before us have said and written develops a more sound and robust theology, and helps guard against making similar gaffes in thinking.  We learn from their strengths as well as their weaknesses.  This past semester I had the privilege of studying Augustine.  Three primary lessons stand out to me.  1) Augustine helped me to appreciate further the tie that the church today has with gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is exciting for me to read a statement about Jesus by a man who lived seventeen hundred years ago, and know that I make the same claim of Christ today when I preach and teach.  The gospel of salvation alone in Christ has not changed.  We live in a day when Pluralists, Inclusivists, and Universalists demand that all theologies bow to the standard of political correctness and affirmation of all.  Augustine reminds us, however, that “our heart is unquiet until is rests in [Jesus].”  2) Augustine points to the great depravity of man and the unfathomable grace of God.   I am convinced that a man will not cherish the grace he has received in Christ until he comes to terms with the utter despair and helplessness of his state in sin without him.  Augustine understood the depravity of his heart.  He thought about it often, wrote about it in his Confessions, and constantly encouraged all men to look away from any good or merit in themselves (which would never be found) and to trust only in the grace of God.  Indeed, Augustine attributed even this turning towards grace to the gracious enablement of God.  In this he helped me to see afresh the great mercy of God and the sweetness of worshipping him.  3) Augustine challenged my theology in the area of baptism.  I am a Baptist….a Southern Baptist to get specific.  I affirm believer’s baptism as the most appropriate and biblical mode of baptism in the church.  Augustine, however, was a staunch advocate of infant baptism and the notion that baptism was a requirement for salvation.  I believe he goes too far here, but my concern has been how I account for the rich history of infant baptism in the church.  I know the early church was not infallible, but when the church suddenly stops a fifteen hundred year practice (stopping after the Reformation), you better have a good answer.  This has led to a question that nags me, and research paper to be written this semester (I’ll let you know what I decide.  All my Presbyterian friends don’t get too excited yet!).

If you have never studied Augustine, please do.  I highly recommend Peter Brown’s biography, Augustine of Hippo, for a great introduction and overview of his life and significant works.  Writings by Augustine that are greatly worth the read are: Confessions (Augustine’s autobiography of his conversion and struggle with sin), On the Free Choice of the Will (Augustine’s early discussion on the nature of freedom of the will and God’s responsibility for evil), Enchiridion (A type of systematic theology of what Augustine affirmed the church to teach), and The City of God (specifically the last ten Chapters…a Masterpiece!).  You won’t be disappointed.

Cooperation with Evil

(This is part of the continuing series on Theology and Philosophy that current Th.M. students are engaged in at Western.  This post is by Renjy Abraham)

As I reflect on the topic of ethics and what we ought to do as human beings interacting in this world, it seems that in general people recognize that the one who willfully and knowingly commits an act is held responsible.  Flowing out of this, it seems reasonable to then believe that no one can be held responsible for the action of others.  On the surface that sounds sensible and right.  But are there circumstances in which we are responsible for the actions of others?  The article, “Cooperation with Evil” by Fr. William P. Saunders addresses situations in which we can join and influence others to do good or evil and therefore we can be held responsible for the actions of others.

Since we have the ability to cooperate with evil acts, to what extent are we held responsible? There are different categories of cooperation, formal and material, which help us come to an answer.

My understanding is that when an individual willingly and knowingly participates in an evil action by another it is called formal cooperation.  In formal cooperation, the cooperator and the actor share intention or purpose to commit the evil act.  In situations where intention or purpose is not shared and one assists in any way, the cooperation is called material.  Material cooperation is then broken up into two categories addressing the closeness of the cooperation.  Simply put, proximate (or immediate) material cooperation occurs when the cooperator’s actions are essential to the action of evil.  Remote (or mediate) material cooperation concerns all actions of the cooperator in which they are not essential to the act, but still aids in the evil act. The example that Saunders uses in his article is of someone getting an abortion. The doctor who performs the act (formal cooperator), the person who drives the individual to the hospital (immediate material cooperator), and even the custodian who cleans the room (mediate material cooperator) all participate to varying degrees in the act of evil.

With all of this, how does one figure out the extent to which they are responsible for the actions of others? It is clear that in formal cooperation, the cooperator should be held at a high level of responsibility. However, when it comes to material cooperation it becomes harder to understand.  Saunders puts forth this guiding question in regards to material cooperation “Is there a proportionate reason for cooperation with this evil action?” His guiding question isn’t satisfactory to me.  It is a good question in that it forces people start thinking about how their actions influence and affect others.  But how does one determine ‘proportionate reasons’?  If someone works as a computer technician at a retail company whose products were made in a sweat shop overseas, as a material cooperator does she have the responsibility to quit her job?  Or is it reasonable to say that her cooperation is so remote and she is providing for her family, that she is justified in her work.  Or for the person who gets a new movie and lets his friend borrow it, knowing that he has the ability to burn the DVD, is he responsible to try and prevent his friend from copying it?    How much should one be willing to set aside the benefits they might gain (the relationship, or the money that is earned to provide for their family) when they cooperate in an act that leads to evil?

I am not looking for a clear cut answer, but principles that better guide us in understanding our responsibility for the actions of others.   Your thoughts?

“Theology isn’t important” and Other Ridiculous Things Christians Say

(This is a guest post by Daniel Attaway, Th.M. student at Dallas Theological Seminary.)

“Theology is not important. Jesus commanded us to love God and love others and I don’t need to know about the hypostatic union in order to do that.  I just want to love people and meet their needs.”

I attended a Christian liberal arts school in central Texas and I cannot tell you how many times I heard this statement or one like it.  These comments usually started flowing freely somewhere around November or March (near the end of the semester).  This was a school that was centered around training young men and women for ministry, specifically youth ministry, and statements like these were not uncommon.  That is absolutely frightening! And even more, it is wicked.

There are basically two reasons why this is a wicked mindset and it is based on our manipulation of Christ’s statement, ‘Love God and Love people’ (Matt 22:38-40).

First, part of loving God is saying correct things about Him. Allow me to illustrate—I love my wife.  She is absolutely beautiful inside and out. Her blonde hair, hazel eyes, and 5’10” frame are stunning.  Every time she walks into the room she takes my breath away. She is incredibly talented as well.  She majored in art in college and I love to watch her paint.  When I see her in action my heart is stirred and I worship my God. There is only one problem… my wife is an absolutely gorgeous 5’5”, beautiful brunette with brown eyes, and she majored in accounting in college.  Oh and let’s not forget, when she walks into a room she takes my breath away and when I am with her my heart is stirred and I worship my God.  Now if I were to describe my wife to you using the first description and then you were to meet her, you would think I was delusional.  The point is that I do not love my wife in a way that honors her if when I speak of her I speak falsely.  There were some things that I said that were consistent in both descriptions but one description is true and the other is false.  In the same way, it is disingenuous to say you love God if you take no interest in who He is and when you speak of Him, you do not speak rightly.

Secondly, part of loving others is telling them the truth. I went to a youth conference about a year ago where Matt Chandler was speaking to youth ministers, pleading with us to clearly and consistently preach the Gospel.  He then said, “If you don’t know it, then I don’t know what you’re doing… You are a far more courageous man than I because the Lord is very clear on how He feels about those who lead His people astray.”  Amen!  Now there is a warning that you must heed: if you tell people the honest truth about who God is and who they are in light of Him, then you may not have the most “successful” ministry in town (as we define success).  There may be those who hate you, your family may suffer persecution, and there may indeed be those who would like to see you leave town or die.  The goal is not for people to speak well of us (Luke 6:26), but for us to guard the deposit that has been entrusted to us (II Tim 1:13-14).  As Christians, it is not our calling to pat people on the back while they rot in their filth of sin and ignorance, but to love them enough to tell them the truth.  Not telling them the truth out of fear or political correctness resembles hate, or worse, indifference more than genuine love.

So what is the goal?  Is it balance between knowing your theology and being practical (i.e. loving people)?  No, it’s simply both.  Being a Christian has many implications but here are two: 1) Know theology and be tied to orthodoxy. Whether you want to believe it or not, there are things that are distinctively Christian and when you abandon those things, you abandon the community of faith.  2) Love others and meet their needs. You cannot do this well if you do not have a robust and thoroughly thought out theology because your theology will always inform your practice.  Orthodoxy and orthopraxy can be distinguished but they cannot be separated.  The goal is not to find a balance between these two, but to diligently seek both.

So, who needs theology?  We all do.  Theology is not only important for the theologian or minister but also for laypeople, young and old.  Your bent may be to neglect theology or practice. Both are wicked. The Christian is to do both joyfully and lovingly.  If I were to just focus on theology and neglect to love others, I am not acting Christianly because James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  On the other hand if I neglect theology I am incapable of truly loving God or people, as Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:6, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” Hold these concepts close together, marry them in your heart and do not neglect either theology or practice because theology is practical (See 1 Timothy—all of it).

Double Effect and the Ethical Dilemma

(This post is by Chris Smith and is the next post in the series on Philosophy and Theology that the ThM students are engaged in.)

The article that I have chosen to post about is “The Rule of Double Effect—A Critique of Its Role in End-of–Life Decision Making” by Timothy E. Quill. This is how I understand the double effect rule: The double effect rule states that a doctor is ethically justified in prescribing medicine that is intended to treat a terminally ill patient’s pain even if this same medicine may decrease the patient’s expected lifespan or result in death. The double effect rule justifies a doctor’s actions based on the nature of their intentions. If a doctor prescribes medicine with the intention of minimizing pain but causes a patient’s death, his actions are justified under the double-effect rule; however, if a doctor prescribes medicine with the intention of causing death, his actions are not justified. (The assumption behind this rule is that there is not a less harmful drug available to treat the kind of pain the patient is experiencing.) The rule is called double effect because a doctor’s intention can have two effects: the intended relief of pain and foreseen but unintended death.
The double effect rule begs the question: Can the desire to alleviate extreme and terminal pain ever outweigh a doctor’s imperative to preserve physical life? Quill states: “The word ‘intentional’ suggests, however, that the deaths of innocent persons may be permissible if brought about unintentionally” (1768).  Here we need to understand the meaning of unintentional not as an accidental effect that is unexpected but as a potential effect that is not intended. When a doctor seeks to alleviate pain by increasing dosages that will have a harmful effect on the patient, can he really by justified when he knows that his actions are further contributing to the patient’s inevitable death? I would say he is justified in this act because his intention is to alleviate.

A case Quill describes makes the double effect rule even more reasonable in my opinion. He describes a patient who is on a respirator in order to help him breath. Is a doctor justified in his decision to turn off a respirator in hopes that the patient will be able to breathe without it? I would say the act of turning off the machine is justified even if the patient dies because the hope was to draw on the patient’s strength to stimulate his own breathing. The patient’s death may have been possible (“foreseen”) but unintentional because the desire was to see the patient breathe on his own. I find this to be a more effective use of the double effect rule because the doctor was attempting to stimulate the patient to greater health rather than attempting to prevent pain.