Does John 6 Speak about the Lord’s Supper?

22 Aug

John 6: 25-59 is a fascinating exchange between Jesus and some of his Jewish interlocutors.  It is a magisterial and mysterious passage.   Some have suggested that Jesus’s words here are intended to convey an understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  That is, they believe, Jesus not only has the Eucharist in view, but also desires to teach about its meaning and interpretation in this passage.  This is called the sacramental interpretation of the passage (the Eucharist usually being listed as a sacrament).

I realize not one person in a thousand is probably interested in this.  Yet with the internet, even 1/100thof potential people is enough to make it worthwhile for me to post this.  So, for what it’s worth, here is my take on this question.

First, read the passage in question.

Arguments for a sacramental view.

  1. Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of heaven, and insists that eternal life comes from eating this bread.  The allusion would make sense of the Lord’s Supper, where we are told that we eat of bread that is the body of Christ.
  2. Jesus says in verse 51, “This bread is my flesh”. Similar to the words used his descriptions of the Lord’s Supper in the synoptic gospels.
  3. In verse 53, Jesus expands the idea to not only eating his flesh, but also drinking his blood. Here both elements of the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) are brought together.
  4. Verse 54 seems to mirror the idea of a sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”.
  5. In verse 55, Jesus insists that “my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink”.  These words can be interpreted as saying that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are transformed (in some way) into the literal body and blood of the Lord.
  6. From verse 54 on, the Greek verb which is translated “to eat” or “eating” is a different verb than in the previous section. In the early part of the chapter, the verb is esthio (or its aorist stem, phag–; after verse 54 it is trogo. The latter verb, some have argued, has a more literal or bodily dimension to it (think of the word “chewing” or “munching” as opposed to the more generic “eating”).


Arguments against a sacramental view:

1. Jesus does indeed speak of himself as the bread of heaven. But the context means that this is the fulfillment of the manna, and this context makes perfect sense of the metaphor without importing the idea of the Lord’s Supper.

2. Jesus says “this bread is my flesh [sarx]”, not “this bread is my body [soma]”.  This is not a minor difference, for the words have quite different uses in the New Testament.  In addition, all the references to the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament use soma, and not sarx.  If John had desired to point us to the Eucharist here he would have chosen the word used at the Last Supper.

3. Verse 53 adds the idea of blood not to fill out the elements of the Eucharist, but to fill out the fullness of the work of Christ that we are to put our faith into.  Blood symbolizes not life, but violent death, and to readers familiar with John’s symbolic use of the Old Testament, this would immediately call to mind the idea of blood sacrifice for the sins of another.

4. Verse 54 is best interpreted in its literary context before we try to interpret it theologically. In this case, the interpretation is clear: It is a rather obvious parallel to verse 40.

6:40: …everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  

6:54: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

The only difference is that one verse speaks of believing in Jesus, while the other speaks of eating his flesh and blood. Both bring the same result: eternal life and resurrection.  The most obvious interpretation of the verse from the    context, then, is that verse 54 is a metaphorical way of talking about believing in the Son.

5. About verse 55, we note first that while the ancient manuscripts are divided between the use of the adjective alethes (“true” or “real”)  and the adverb alethos (“truly” or “really”),  in statements like these (with symbolic predicates) John never uses the adverb.  What does it mean, then,  to say that Jesus’ flesh is “true” or “real” food?  The sacramental view would interpret this as something like “actual” or “literal” as opposed to spiritually or metaphorically.  But an examination of the way John uses this word in similar sentences should make us wary of that interpretation:

  • 1:9: The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.
  • 1:47: Here [Nathaniel] is a true Israelite
  • 4:23: The true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth
  • 15:1: I am the true vine, and my father is the gardener
  • 17:1 That they may know You, the only true God

I believe these are the only other passages in John where this word in a similar way.  It is clear that the interpretation as “actual” or “literal” (as opposed to “spiritual” or “metaphorically”) would not work.  In fact, in several of these passages, the idea seems almost the opposite: Jesus is not literally glowing, but is light is a good metaphor or symbol of what his truth is.  He is not an actual, physical vine, but He is what the vine metaphor points to.  So it seems the adjective “true” in John is better understood to mean either “genuine” (as opposed to fake) or to “true” in the sense of being the archetype or the ideal, which the symbol or metaphor points to.  The last interpretation seems most clearly in line with the parallels in 1:9 and 15:1.  In either case, an interpretation as “actual” or “literal” (in opposition to “metaphorically”) seems unsustainable.

6. The change of verbs is a rather weak argument, since there are not parallels to these words carrying distinctive theological weight elsewhere. In any case, New Testament scholar D. A. Carson  notes, “It is far more likely that John injects no new meaning by selecting this verb, but prefers this verb when he opts for the Greek present tense (similarly in 13:18)”.

In addition, a non-sacramental understanding of John 6 is further seen by these points.

7. John, alone among the gospel writers, does not include an account of the Lord’s Supper, in spite of the fact that he devotes (by far) the most verses to discussing the dinner in which the Last Supper occurred (chapters 13-18). This would be odd if the sacraments were deeply involved in his thought. In fact, many scholars have suggested the omission must have been a deliberate attempt by John to de-emphasize the focus on the Lord’s Supper.

8. The whole context of the passage (and indeed, of the book) is that of the need to place belief in Jesus.  The word believe (or its cognates) occurs over 90 times in the book including 9 times in the last half of chapter 6.  Indeed, the whole discussion of “bread” begins as a response to the words of Jesus: “the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (verses 29-31).  As Augustine put it: Crede, et manducasti (“Believe, and you have eaten”) [In Johan. Tract.xxvi.1].

9. One of the first rules of the grammatical-historical interpretation of scripture is that we must limit our interpretations (or at least base them on) what the first hearers (the original audience) would have understood.  For the sacramental view to be valid, this would mean that we should reasonably expect the Jewish audience Jesus was addressing in John 6 to have enough background of the Lord’s Supper to understand Jesus’ words to be referring to that.  But I have never seen that established, and indeed, it would seem difficult or impossible to do so, for the Lord’s Supper was instituted after this discourse.

10. The sacramental view, lastly, not only neglects the context of the passage, but distorts the previously revealed truth in the passage.  As Carson writes: “Moreover, the language of 53-54 is so completely unqualified that if its primary reference is to the Eucharist, we must conclude that the one thing necessary for eternal life is participation in the Lord’s supper.  This interpretation of course actually contradicts the earlier parts of the discourse, not least verse 40.  The only reasonable alternative is to understand these verses as a repetition of the earlier truth, but now in metaphorical form.”  [Emphasis his].

Therefore, I do not think the passage is pointing to the Lord’s Supper.  Having said that, it is also true that the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper is foreshadowed in an indirect way.  That is, the words of Jesus here point toward and find fulfillment in the future act of the Cross and the communion with Jesus which the cross brings.  When we participate in Holy Communion, it points toward and finds fulfillment in the past action of the Cross and our continuing communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit.   They use the same imagery because they point toward the same truth.

“Believe, and you have eaten” indeed.


Israel’s Temple and the Structure of the Cosmos

26 Jul

Last year, I wrote a post on how Genesis chapter 1 is best understood as making a theological point: that creation itself is God’s temple.

As I was revisiting some of that today, I decided to re-make a graphic I had used.  It shows how the structure and furnishings of the temple correspond to the ancient view of the structure of reality.  Here is the revised graphic, followed by a explanatory quote from Old Testament scholar John Walton. Click on the graphic for a better view.

In the biblical text the description of the tabernacle and temple contain many transparent connections to the cosmos.  This connection was explicitly recognized as early as the second century A.D. in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who says of the tabernacle: “every one of these objects is intended to recall and represent the universe”.  In the outer courtyard were various representations of cosmic geography.  Most important are the water basin, which I Kings 7:23-26 designates “sea”, and the bronze pillars, described in 1 Kings 7:15-22, which perhaps represented the pillars of the earth.  The horizontal axis in the temple was arranged in the same order as the vertical axis in the cosmos.  From the courtyard, which contained the elements outside the organized cosmos (cosmic waters and the pillars of the earth), on would move into the organized cosmos as he entered the antechamber.  Here were the Menorah (lampstand), the Table of Bread, and the incense altar.  In the Pentateuch’s description of the tabernacle, the lamp and its olive oil are provided for “light” (especially Ex. 25:6, 35:14; Num. 4:9). This word for light is the same word used to describe the celestial bodies in day four (rather than calling them the sun and moon).  As the menorah represented the light provided by God, the “Bread of the Presence” (Ex. 25:30) represented food provided by God. The altar of incense provided a sweet-smelling cloud across the face of the veil that separated the two chambers.  If we transpose from the horizontal axis to the vertical, the veil separated the earthly sphere, with its functions, from the heavenly sphere, where God dwells.  This latter was represented in the holy of holies, where the footstool of the throne of God (the ark) was placed.


The Bible Story: God’s Response to Evil

23 Jul

Often when we see the evil and suffering in this life, the first question that comes to mind is, “Why does God allow such evil to exist?”  I think there are some good ways to answer that question, but I notice the Bible takes a rather different approach.  Even when the question is directly asked (as in the book of Job), it is not directly answered.  Perhaps this is because the answer is “above our pay grade”, that is, we do not need to know the answer in order to fulfill our purpose.  Or perhaps it is beyond our understanding, just as most of the things I do are above the understanding of my dog.

No, instead of answering the question, the scriptures answer a different question: what is God doing about evil?  The answer to that question forms the core of the Bible message. In fact, one could almost trace the major themes and events of the scriptures as stages in the answer to this question.

So what is God doing about evil? N. T. Wright suggests you can summarize it in three words.  First, he restrains evil.  Second, he judges evil. Third, he overcomes evil.  He restrains evil out of love for man; evil is like a great cancer—if left unchecked it soon destroys everything.  God allows evil to exist for a time, though he did not author evil, but he actively works to make sure the evil does not spread so deeply that good cannot also thrive.  He judges evil because He is a moral being and the judge of the universe.  Evil exists in a moral universe, and so must be judged, or the very notion of morality is mocked.  And he overcomes evil also because of his love, in particular the form of love known as grace.  God’s plan is not defeated by evil; it gives an escape from the judgment upon evil, and even uses evil for good.  Because love, not evil, will always have the last word in God’s universe.

I developed the following chart to help picture this.  It is imperfect, but some may find it helpful. Click on it for a better view.


Made Like Him (by John Oxenham)

26 Jun

We drop a seed into the ground,
A tiny, shapeless thing, shriveled and dry,
And, in the fullness of its time, is seen
A form of peerless beauty, robed and crowned.

Beyond the pride of any earthly queen,
Instinct with loveliness, and sweet and rare,
The perfect emblem of its Maker’s care.
This from a shriveled seed?—
—Then may man hope indeed!

For man is but the seed of what he shall be,
When, in the fullness of his perfecting,
He drops the husk and cleaves his upward way,
Through earth’s retardings and clinging clay,
Into the sunshine of God’s perfect day.

No fetters then! No bonds of time or space!
But powers as ample as the boundless grace
That suffered man, and death, and yet in tenderness,
Set wide the door, and passed Himself before—
As He had promised—to prepare a place.

We know not what we shall be—only this—
That we shall be made like Him—as He is.

John Oxenham


R.I.P. Dallas Willard

09 May

The first time I opened The Divine Conspiracy, I fell in love.  The object of my love was an elderly philosophy professor name Dallas Willard. Of course, what I loved was his mind and heart that poured out words like these:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends among us the Way to himself. That shows what, in his heart of hearts, God really is like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and competent love.”

“But we get a totally different picture of salvation, faith, and forgiveness if we regard having life from the kingdom of the heavens now–the eternal kind of life–as the target. The words and acts of Jesus naturally suggest that this is indeed salvation, with discipleship, forgiveness, and heaven to come as natural parts.”

“Jesus came among us to show and teach the life for which we were made. He came very gently, opening access to the governance of God with him, and set afoot a conspiracy of freedom in truth among human beings. Having overcome death he remains among us. By relying on his word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life into the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life. Caught up in his active rule, our deeds become an element in God’s eternal history. They are what God and we do together, making us part of his life and him a part of ours.”

How different this was than the pablum of Christian fundamentalism I had grown up in.  How much deeper, more holistic and more beautiful.

I devoured The Divine Conspiracy, as well as Hearing God, The Renovation of the Heart, and The Spirit of the Disciplines.  They were, for me, the best expression of what deep thinking about the Christian life was all about.

Dallas Willard died yesterday, and I know of no greater way to honor his memory and work than by offering some quotes from him to those who may not have (yet!) read his books.

“And God has set up prayer in such a way that, if you want to explain it away, you can. That’s the human mind. God set it up like that for a reason, which is this: God ordained that people should be governed in the end by what they want.” 

“Great faith, like great strength in general, is revealed by the ease of its workings. Most of what we think we see as the struggle OF faith is really the struggle to act as IF we had faith when in fact we do not.” 

“The cautious faith that never saws off a limb on which it is sitting, never learns that unattached limbs may find strange unaccountable ways of not falling.” 

“We must understand that God does not “love” us without liking us – through gritted teeth – as “Christian” love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core – which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word “love”.” 

“There is no question of doing is purely on our own. But we must act. Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort. And it is well-directed, decisive, and sustained effort that is the key to the keys of the kingdom and to the life of restful power in ministry and life that those keys open to us.” 

“In many cases, our need to wonder about or be told what God wants in a certain situation is nothing short of a clear indication of how little we are engaged in His work.” 

“Solitude well practiced will break the power of busyness, haste, isolation, and loneliness. You will see that the world is not on your shoulders after all. Your will find yourself, and God will find you in new ways. Silence also brings Sabbath to you. It completes solitude, for without it you cannot be alone. Far from being a mere absence, silence allows the reality of God to stand in the midst of your life. God does not ordinarily compete for our attention. IN silence we come to attend. Lastly, fasting is done that we many consciously experience the direct sustenance of God to our body and our whole person.” 

“The humility that cringes in order that reproof may be escaped or favor obtained is as unchristian as it is profoundly immoral.” 

“Multitudes are now turning to Christ in all parts of the world. How unbearably tragic it would be, though, if the millions of Asia, South America and Africa were led to believe that the best we can hope for from the Way of Christ is the level of Christianity visible in Europe and America today, a level that has left us tottering on the edge of world destruction. The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes-a time for men and women to be heroic in faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message TOO LOW.” 

“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.” 

“The test of character posed by the gentleness of God’s approach to us is especially dangerous for those formed by the ideas that dominate our modern world. We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character. Only a very hardy individualist or social rebel — or one desperate for another life — therefore stands any chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today. Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists, though because of powerful intellectual propaganda they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.” 

“Happiness in reality consists only in rest, and not in being stirred up. This instinct conflicts with the drive to diversion, and we develop the confused idea that leads people to aim at rest through excitement.” 



Atheist Remix of “Welcome to this World”

30 Apr

A video produced by an atheist organization has been quite popular lately.  It is called, Welcome to this World, and is a satirical presentation of the Christian faith.  You can see the video here, and be sure to read the point by point rebuttal.

While I think the rebuttal is great, I also think this is a good chance for Christians to go on the offensive, and show the absurdities of the atheist worldview. So I took the liberty of creating an alternative narration.  This is not “answering a straw man with a straw man” because I have taken these ideas from the atheists I have read, and they are for the most part either from Nietzsche (the most consistent atheist) or the members of what is called the New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, Pinker, Dennet, and others).

By the way, Internet Monk was kind enough to publish my remix, and you can see the comments for that here.


My child, welcome to this world. Before you grow up, there are a few things we must tell you.

First, you are the chance, random result of certain biological processes, and nothing more.  Your father and I were inborn with a desire to spread our own genes and thus, you are here.  This is why we “love” you. In turn, we are also solely the result of the same impersonal drive of our ancestors to competitively reproduce their own DNA.  In truth, just as a chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs, you are your gene’s way of making more genes.

Oh, you will have false, deluded people who insist on making up stories about life having a purpose beyond this, but they lie. The cosmos is a closed system of matter. There is nothing outside it. Nothing.  The universe simply is. It has no purpose. And your own life, as part of this material universe, likewise simply is. It has no purpose.

Again, because there is nothing outside the universe (or at least nothing that could conceivably affect the universe), then matter is all there is.   You may someday wonder about the “why” of this.  “Where did the matter come from? Why is there something rather than nothing?” But there is no answer to that. The matter simply always existed.  There is no reason why.

Matter exploded into order not through the design or plan of anyone or anything, but solely through an impersonal explosion (again, don’t ask about the who or why of the explosion).  As the matter cooled, it formed itself into galaxies, stars and planets, and then somehow (we haven’t figured this part out yet) it changed into life.  That life evolved without help or design from anyone, and, in time, single cells of bacteria turned into ants, dogs and humans (including you of course).  Life is simply organized matter.

As your young mind learns logic, it will also see the implications of this truth.  You will see, for example, that your sense of free will is an illusion.  Just as we can tell the occurrence of the next comet, we could, if we had all the data, tell the next occurrence of everything, for everything in a closed universe must operate according to the laws of physics working out the results of the big bang.  Of course, you may feel you can do as you desire.  But you forget that your desires themselves must have a previous material explanation in a closed, material universe.  As one of our great prophets, Nietzsche, said,

If one were omniscient, one would be able to calculate each individual action in advance, each step in the progress of knowledge, each error, each act of malice. To be sure, the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition . . . this assumption that free will exists, is also part of the calculable mechanism.

In other word, my child, your free will is an illusion.  Your own mind will convince you of this if you think through it: in a material world, where your mind itself is simply molecules colliding without reason or purpose, what could the concept of “free will” possibly mean? As another prophet, Skinner, has said, “A person does not act on the world, the world acts on him”.

Since this is so, it follows that no actions can be “good” or “evil”. They simply are.  The Prophet Nietzsche again:

We don’t accuse nature of immorality when it sends us a thunderstorm, and makes us wet: why do we call the injurious man immoral? Because in the first case, we assume necessity, and in the second a voluntarily governing free will. But this distinction is in error.

Therefore, we will not punish you for being “bad” nor reward you for being “good”, for you had no choice in the matter. In any case, who are we to say what is “good” or “bad”?  We are simply pre-determined bodies of organized molecules like yourself. The only thing we have chosen by free will is to believe in a closed, materialistic universe that makes free will impossible.

As your mind grows, you will also need to make sure to not be deluded by the idea of “truth.”  Certainly, some things will seem true.  But remember your origins! Your mind is simply your brain, a physical organ, and it, like the rest of your body, has evolved from non-thinking matter.  And no-one and nothing is there to guide this evolving, other than the unreflective desire to reproduce.  Therefore, your mind evolved, not to find truth, but to reproduce your DNA.  Simply put, we have no reason to believe your mind has any other purpose than your genitals have, and thus no reason to think the idea of truth (if there is such a thing) matters to the mind.  The Apostle Steven Pinker puts it well:

We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.

Exactly. The question to ask is not whether an idea is “true” but whether it is “useful” to spreading your DNA.  (You may wonder if this makes our worldview self-defeating; it’s is best not to think too much about that. It is not useful).

This is the glorious world you have been born into.  Do not be deceived by those claiming you have value because you are human, or made in the image of some imaginary god.  The only difference between yourself and a fly is that your genetic information is more organized, just as a car is more complex and organized than a bike. In reality, they are both just matter. To be sure, sometimes one is more helpful than the other to get around in, but that all depends on whether you live in the Texas countryside or in downtown Hong Kong.  In reality, the matter in you (and thus, you yourself) is not more valuable than the matter in a corpse or a stone of the same size.  Of course, this applies to the other people you will meet also. Everyone and everything is the same: simply matter. And when you die, nothing will remain of you except a few memories in a few other bodies of soon-to-be dead matter.

My child, in keeping all these things in your mind from the start, you will be one of the few to rise above the herd and see clearly.  Even some of our fellow atheists still cling stubbornly and inconsistently to foolish notions of human freedom, human meaning, absolute truth, and all the accompanying nonsense of morality, justice and purpose.  BE CONSISTENT! Then you can end up like our great martyr Nietzsche, who bravely endured the insane asylum for his consistency. Yes, you will find for yourself the greatness seeing the world like the wise skeptic Mark Twain did near his death:

A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle; … they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; … those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. It (the release) comes at last—the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them—and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence,…a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever.

Yes, my child, welcome to this world!


Does Pro-choice Philosophy Justify Infanticide?

16 Apr

In 2010, 1,270 babies were killed after they were born alive after a botched abortion. Recently, a representative of Planned Parenthood stated that the life or death of a child born this way, “should be left to the decision of the mother and her health-care provider”.

Perhaps she had been reading the most chilling statement you will read this year:

“[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. — Philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics

To most people, I suspect the words of the Planned Parenthood lobbyist and the learned philosophers above are morally repugnant. At least, I certainly find them so. And most pro-choice advocates would not, I think, agree with them. Even Planned Parenthood tried to discredit the words of its paid representative.

But it seems to me that the quotes above are the logical outworking of the philosophy behind the pro-choice movement, and not some strange perversion of it. This is a serious and startling claim. Let me see if I can justify it.

There are four main beliefs that form the groundwork for the pro-choice movement:

1. The status of the fetus is morally ambiguous or arbitrary; it is not a person
2. The mother, as a person, has greater value than the fetus
3. To force a woman to carry a child to birth is to impose an unjust burden on her
4. The fetus’s value is determined by the mother

One can readily see how these four fit together, with the first belief readily providing justification for the others. I will not take the time to argue against each of these (a rather long article, indeed) but to simply point out the reasoning for each, and then apply that to a child born through a botched abortion (or, even more chillingly, to a baby delivered naturally).

The first belief noted above is that the status of the fetus is morally ambiguous, morally arbitrary, or both. A fetus “grows” or develops into a person by a process of continual change. It does not have the status of human personhood at conception, nor is there any point where one can simply say, “Now it is a person. Now it has value”.

Once this belief is accepted, the second belief follows logically. The mother has greater value than the fetus because she is older and has developed feelings, thoughts and relationships that the fetus has not (yet). She is a person. The fetus is not (yet). Her body therefore has claim over the body (that is, life) of the fetus.

If this is true, then the third belief also seems to follow: since the value of the fetus is ambiguous or non-existent, while the mother has great value, than any burden that the life of the fetus places upon her is unreasonable, unless she chooses to accept that burden. The fetus has no claim to any rights (its status being ambiguous), while the mother has full rights (her status as a person being secure).

And this is why the fourth point follows: the value of the fetus is determined by the mother. If the mother chooses to bear the fetus to birth, then she (and others) will call it a baby, that is, an infant person. If she does not choose to value the pregnancy, she aborts a “fetus” or “the product of conception”.

Here is the point of my argument: the pro-choice philosophy here, followed to its logical conclusion, will also justify killing a child born alive after a botched abortion. In fact, it seems difficult to see why it would not apply to a child born normally after a full pregnancy, even weeks of months after the birth.

To return to point one above: in some sense it is true that an eight month old fetus is different from an eight week old fetus. It is viable, that is, can exist without it’s mother’s body. And it is more advanced not only physically, but mentally. It has grown countless neurons since eight weeks, and is able to think and feel what before it could not.

My point, however, is that this could all be said also of an infant a month old as opposed to a fetus of eight months. It can exist without its mothers body, but cannot yet live without (sometimes burdensome help) from its parents or guardians. Its neurons have continued to grow, and it can now think and feel (at least emotionally) many things it could not as an eight month old fetus, and this growth will continue throughout its life. The eighteen inch trip down the birth canal did not resolve its moral status, if that status is defined by its knowledge, viability, and feelings.

Minerva and Giubilini, in the article quoted above, are succinct on this point: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.”

In other words, because the pro-choice philosophy is grounded on the idea that personhood and value are “developed” rather than given, it cannot argue that an infant who has simply traveled outside her mother’s womb is a person with value, while one who has not yet made that trip is neither a person nor valuable. Indeed, it would seem to have trouble arguing that a one year old child has the same value as her mother.

And this implies, it seems to me, that the mother has greater status or value as a person than a child born to a botched abortion, or to an infant of a month (or a year)  old. Personhood and value, remember, are developed, and of course the mother will be more developed in brain function, emotional depth, and in relationships than a newborn or infant.

Therefore the third part of the pro-choice philosophy comes into play: since the mother has the greater value and status, then her needs trump the needs of the child. If its continued life would somehow be burdensome to her, then it should not live.

Finally, we come to the conclusion. And this is the position the Planned Parenthood representative shocked her audience with: if a child is still alive after an abortion attempt, wiggling and struggling on the table, then only the mother (and her doctor, perhaps) has the right to decide what to do about it. If they decide to attempt to save it, they will do so. If they decide to let it die unassisted (or even to actively kill it) then they can and will do so. The baby (remember, it is a fetus no longer) only has the status or value they give it, no more.

One wonders, on this logic, why the same could not be true for a baby born full term, but now discovered to have a disability. Do the mother and doctor decide then if the disability is so severe that it would be burdensome to someone else (read: real people) to let it live? Why not? And where is the line of what is too burdensome, if not the individual choice of the mother?

Minerva and Giubilini again:

“If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.”

Please take 30 seconds to read that paragraph again.

Some may wonder if I am presenting here a slippery slope argument. I am not at all. I am not saying, “look if you let this happen, then these other bad things may happen”. Rather my argument is this: if this is morally just, then this other thing is also morally just. But it’s not.

Or, to put it in a syllogism, it is this:

Premise 1: If A, then B
Premise 2: Not B
Conclusion: therefore, not A.

(This, by the way, goes by the name of the moden tollens form of syllogism, and is recognized as one of the two valid forms of hypothetical syllogisms.)

To fill it out:

Premise 1: If abortion is morally justified on the usual grounds, then infanticide is also morally justified.
Premise 2: infanticide is not morally justified.
Conclusion: therefore, abortion is not morally justified on its usual grounds.

Now, of course, I did not take time to argue premise 2. I am making the assumption that my readers will already concede it. If not, then they are free to disregard my conclusion.
To sum up, the words of the Planned Parenthood representative, though embarrassing to the pro-choice cause, are actually morally and logically consistent with the philosophy underlying that cause. Planned Parenthood can “clarify” its position and walk back from its lobbyist all it wants. What it has not done, and cannot do, is show why, on its philosophy, she is wrong.


The Day with No Name

30 Mar

The strands of O Sacred Head Now Wounded from yesterday’s Good Friday Service still waft in and out of my memory.  The opening notes of tomorrow’s Christ Arose have not yet been played.  I live, for a while, on the day with no name.

O all the days of Holy Week, this is perhaps the most poignant.  Good Friday is tragic.  Easter joyful. But the Saturday between is one of sad and strange silence.  Our catholic friends hold no mass that day, and I know of no protestant church that holds a service.  It is a simply a day between the agony of the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb.

My mind goes back to the disciples and followers of Jesus on the day after the cross.  I wonder what strange mix of emotions swirled in their minds.  How could they reconcile these two undeniable facts: that the one they called Jesus spoke words and did deeds that could only be described as divine, yet this same Jesus had just been crucified as a common criminal by the rich and powerful?  Which was the real Jesus, the one who had power over the waves and demons and even death, or the one mocked, cursed and subject to death?

We, of course, who live on this side of Easter know the answer: Jesus’s humiliating death was not the denial of all that he taught, but the fulfillment of it, and the work and message of Jesus were validated by the resurrection.  But they did not see that yet. On that strange Saturday, they could only try to make some sort of sense of the great gap between the glory of the message and the inglorious death of the messenger.

It occurs to me that we too live with the same dynamic of that sad and strange Saturday of old.  We have heard and read the glorious things that Jesus said and did.  We conclude like the Roman soldier who was sent to arrest Jesus: “No man ever spoke like this!”  We hear the promises of a new creation, in which the glory and beauty of God fill the earth like the water fills the seas.  But we don’t see this glory and beauty.  Far from it.  Our experience seems so far removed from the promise.  Yes, we, too, live on Saturday.  We live between the cross and the crown. Yes, we live after Jesus’ resurrection, but before our own, and before the day when He comes and restores and glorifies all things.  We have the promises, but we must wait to see them lived out.  And in this waiting we yearn for the promise to be fulfilled.  We hunger for injustice and evil to be defeated.  We crave the beauty and glory of God’s glorious kingdom, and even God’s presence.  But our hunger is unsatiated.  The great test of our faith, then, is this: will the growing hunger make us turn away in frustration, or create in us a deeper anticipation and love for the things that will be?

Lord Jesus, help me this day, and all my days, to be found as one waiting and watching, for that glorious day, the greater Easter, when you not only return in your resurrected body, but share that resurrection with all those who are found in you. Amen.


Why our Church will NOT be hosting an Easter Egg Hunt

19 Mar

I write this now (and not closer to Easter) because I don’t want anyone to think I have a particular church in mind. I have not seen any big signs, nor seen any ads in the paper telling me which churches are having Easter egg hunts this year. I have no clue which congregations will feature a man in a cheap bunny suit prowling around on Easter weekend.  This isn’t about any one church; it is about a sad trend I have seen growing in the last few years.

That trend is churches co-opting popular holiday themes into their church programming   Whether it is having the kids sitting on Santa’s lap or the previously mentioned Easter egg hunt, churches are competing with each other to see who can attract the most kids to their holiday events.

The very word Holiday means, of course, a Holy Day. This means (or at least meant) a day set aside to mark a holy occasion.  Traditionally, the three Holy Days observed by almost all Christian churches, no matter the era or country, are those marking the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For Christmas, I think the issue is less clear cut, simply because many of the motifs go back centuries, are drawn from  many cultures, and are not tied into the cult of Santa Claus.  Wreaths and garland are fine. But I would never have a picture of Santa adorning the church wall, just as I would never sing Here Comes Santa Claus in place of O Holy Night.

For Easter, the issue for me is black and white: Nothing about a bunny delivering painted hen’s eggs in a church context, please.

My argument is simple: these things will confuse, dilute and blunt the message and meaning of these Holy Days.  Children are already confused about what parts of the Christmas story are in the Bible and which parts are tools of marketing departments.  Do we really want more children in our culture to wonder if the meaning of Christmas is about the resurrection, chocolate bunnies, or some weird combination?

The flip side of the argument, of course, is that these things draw children into the church, so that the church can reach the parents.  I have two responses.

First, even if it worked, does pragmatism somehow trump the clarity of the gospel message?  Is it worth increasing the scope of the church’s mission if we become less clear about what that mission is?  Has this ever, in the history of the church, been a good thing?

Secondly, I don’t believe these things will really work at increasing the scope of the church’s mission, for this simple reason: I don’t think God is honored by them, and so He will not honor them.  Outreach like this smacks of having a small vision of God, as if the Lord of the Universe needs us to get people in the door with Easter bunnies and painted eggs.

I don’t want to be the Easter version of the scrooge here.  Feel free to paint eggs with your kids and give them all chocolate bunnies their stomachs can handle.  This is all just good, childhood fun.  But, in my opinion, incorporating these themes into church is a very bad idea.


Posted in Church


Islam? What’s Islam?

01 Mar

Interesting post at Fraters Libertas:

While you may not agree with the views of the new breed of aggressive atheists who have emerged in recent years you have to admire their courage for bravely standing up and speaking truth to power against the various religious institutions whose integrity they seek to undermine. No matter what consequences they might face, they aren’t afraid to lay out their case against religion in terms that are often harsh and sure to offend. Here is an example from an article called Facing Uncomfortable Truths:
In a recent Al-Jazeerah interview, Richard Dawkins was asked his views on God. He argued that the god of “the Old Testament” is “hideous” and “a monster”, and reiterated his claim from The God Delusion that the God of the Torah is the most unpleasant character “in fiction”. 

As you can see, Dawkins has no trouble attacking the Hebrew God in a most direct and uncompromising manner. No atheist wallflower he. 

Asked if he thought the same of the God of the Koran, Dawkins ducked the question, saying: “Well, um, the God of the Koran I don’t know so much about.”

How can it be that the world’s most fearless atheist, celebrated for his strident opinions on the Christian and Jewish Gods, could profess to know so little about the God of the Koran? Has he not had the time? Or is Professor Dawkins simply demonstrating that most crucial trait of his species: survival instinct.

Whoops. It’s funny how these confident, cocksure prophets of atheism-who barely have time to take a breath between slamming the tenets of Christianity and Judaism-often get curiously tongue-tied and shy when the subject of Islam comes up. The idea that Dawkins doesn’t “know so much about” the God of the Koran is absurd. Of course he knows about Islam. And the same disdain and disregard that he has for Judaism and Christianity should surely apply to Islam as well. 

The truth is that bashing and mocking Judaism and Christianity is easy and painless. You’ll get praise and admiration from those within the “right” circles of academia, media, and entertainment. Your opponents will argue with and debate your views and they may even offer (gasp) to pray for you. There’s no real price to pay at all. 

However, should you direct the same scathing criticisms towards Islam you’ll find those “right” circles suddenly closed off to you. And your opponents’ rebuttals may not be offered in articles and debate halls, but rather with bullets, bombs, and knives. Standing up to that takes real courage not the false bravado we see on displays as atheists attack Judaism and Christianity.



A Favorite Sonnet from Donne

19 Feb

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?  Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun  My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by Thy self, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I fear no more.

John Donne, 1623.

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Posted in Poetry


Poem for Ash Wednesday

13 Feb

I bow my forehead to the dust, I veil my eyes for shame,
And urge, in trembling self distrust, A prayer without a claim.
I see the wrong that round me lies; I feel the guilt within
I hear the groaning and suffering, The world confess its sin

Yet in the maddening maze of things, And tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed stake my spirit clings; I know that God is good.
I know not what the future has Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death His mercy underlies.

And if my heart and flesh are weak To bear an untried pain,
My bruised soul He will not break, But strengthen and sustain.
And so I drift alone at sea, And though I have no oar;
No harm from Him can come to me On ocean or on shore.

I know not where my journey ends, beneath His heavy stare
I only know I cannot drift, Beyond His love and care.

John Greenleaf Whittier

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Posted in Poetry


When is a building not a building? Reflections on rule-based religion.

07 Feb

This week I took my daughter to visit Purdue. We were treated to a two-hour tour on a blustery morning. Our guide, a junior named Mary, pointed out one rather strange characteristic at the heart of campus. It was the Mathematical Sciences Building. The first floor was 12 feet in the air. The building was held up by concrete pillars, and the students walked underneath:

We then came to a grassy area dominated by a wide, six story building on the north side called Beering Hall.

To the west Mary pointed out on of the oldest buildings: University Hall

Mary went on to explain a quirk of these buildings. When John Purdue provided a great deal of the land and funding to make the university possible in 1863, he had four stipulations:

  • He was to be buried on campus
  • All buildings were to be constructed of red brick
  • The university would never have a music major
  • University Hall would always be the tallest building on campus.


Since University Hall is only four stories high, it was this last stipulation that would prove most troublesome as the small regional college transformed into an international university of some 40,000 students.  So the administration resorted to what could charitably be called creativity, and what could more accurately be called a dodge.

First, the math building is not really a building.  It is technically called a  “Land Bridge”. Really.  After all, good ol’ John never stipulated that land bridges couldn’t be taller than University Hall.

When it came time to build Beering Hall, the administrators apparently felt putting up one massive building on stilts and calling it a bridge is fine, but to do it twice would just be ridiculous.  After all, how many land bridges does one campus need? So they had another trick up their sleeves. The top two floors would be given a different area code than the rest of the campus. Thus, it could be argued, they were not actually part of the campus. Surely only a hide-bound literalist would insist otherwise.

We had a good chuckle at these shenanigans. But I was immediately reminded of how often we do the same thing in religion, especially if our religion is primarily rule-based.

I went to school at a rather rule-obsessed Christian college. The student handbook was roughly the size of a Chicago phone book.  Church attendance, dress codes, prohibitions against movies; these all had a place in the book of rules. Yes, it was that kind of school. To register for class, each student was required to fill out and sign a form stating they would follow all the rules. By my sophomore year I took the dodge of printing my name instead of signing it.  The registrars never noticed, and I somehow eased my conscience a little; after all, I never signed that I would follow all the rules.

After spending a week with a Jewish guide in Israel, I learned that dodges like this are not limited to Bible colleges or fundamental Baptist churches.  From Shabbat elevators (that stopped on every floor in turn, so that you did not have to work on the Sabbath by pressing a button) to toilet paper in separate sheets (no tearing things on the Sabbath), anytime there is a rule there is a way around it.  Perhaps my favorite example is the Shabbat Amigo Scooter. If you have time, read how it works.

My point is not to mock. My point is to remind us that rules by themselves can never change the heart.  Morality can never spring from compulsion. If anything, rules only make the prohibited seem more inviting.

The gospel is always by grace.  I think it was Luther who summed up the formula in this way: Love God and do what you want.  In that order.



Hey Ray Lewis: You just won the Super bowl! Can we talk about your exegesis now, please?

05 Feb

Dear. Mr. Lewis

First, congratulations on winning your second super bowl. Your team played great.

Second, I also appreciate how you seek to give God glory through your words after the victory, as I have also heard you do after other games.  I know there are some who hold your past against you and deem you a hypocrite; I am not one of them.  If I didn’t believe people could be fully forgiven I wouldn’t be in the ministry. So kudos for that.

But here’s my problem.  When asked about how your team won, you quoted Romans 8:31 –“If God is for us, who can be against us”.  Great verse, but can we talk about your exegesis (interpretation) of it for a minute?  I only ask because 150 million people watched that game, and most of them heard your comments.  It would be a shame for them to get the wrong idea of what that verse means, wouldn’t it?

Let me just say upfront that this verse is not a promise that if God is for us we will succeed in winning football games, or winning at anything else (career, relationships, financial struggles).  I’m sure (or at least I hope) you do not believe that God is with you more than he is with the opposing team.  Right?  But how many people will hear you quote that verse (when you are asked why you won) and conclude that since they themselves are not winning in their own lives, then God must not be for them?

You see, this verse follows hard after verses 28-29 of that chapter, and doesn’t make sense without it:

   And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His son, that He might be the first-born among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called, and those He called he also justified, and those he justified he also glorified. What then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?

You see, the context of the promise [that God is with us is] is the goal of all God’s work: to make us like Christ.  The apostle is not saying that if God is with us then no other team can defeat us, or no problem plague us; his point is that His good purpose to make us like Christ cannot be hindered by any adversary or any problem or painful circumstance.  In fact, any opposition or problem becomes a tool He uses; they are a chisel in the hands of the master sculpture, as he fashions each believer into an image that is paradoxically both unique and Christ-like.

If this is God’s purpose then, it is easy to conceive how a defeat in the big game might do more to further that (by slaying our pride and self-confidence) than a victory.  But that is His call. He alone has wisdom to know what we need; it is His hand that holds the chisel.

So again, congratulations, and thank you for seeking to honor God and not yourself in your victory. But if by any slight chance you read this, consider whether He might not be more honored if your audience heard that His plan is infinitely greater than to help you win a super bowl.


Why Doesn’t God Give More Proof?

31 Jan

In his book, Contact, Carl Sagan satirically asks why God doesn’t place a glowing cross in the sky at night to serve as irrefutable proof of Jesus’ resurrection. One could just as well ask why God doesn’t set up a website, or place billboards around.  Why must we read and understand an ancient book to know God?  Bertland Russell, the famous British atheist, once was asked what he would say, if, after his death, he came face to face with the God he had denied in life.  Russell’s response: “Not enough evidence”.

This is not just a question for non-believers.  As Christians, surely we all wonder why the evidence for God can be denied.  Doesn’t God want us to all know Him?  Then why doesn’t He make himself more obvious?  Why doesn’t he shout from heaven?  We certainly agree with Moses’ statement, “You are a God who hides himself”, but we usually have no clue why.

I think the answer to that is in understanding the difference between faith and knowledge, and why God desires faith.

Briefly, knowledge is the intellectual knowledge of what is (yes, I am aware of the different debates about knowledge, but am not going to get into them here, as they do not affect my main point).  Faith is a little more difficult to define.  I define it this way: Faith is choosing, for good but not unassailable reasons, to believe something is true, and then acting on that belief.  This seems to me the definition most inline with the New Testament word (pistis in Greek) which is translated faith, belief, or trust.

Notice a couple things about this definition:

First, it is a belief that has consequences.  It is not a trivial thing, for this type of faith affects our choices (unlike, say, the belief that 2 plus 2 equals four, or that the sun is around a million times the size of the earth).

Secondly, it is based on reason and evidence, but it is not compelled by them.  That is, it is not against reason or evidence, but may sometimes go beyond them.  I believe my spouse is faithful to me, not because I can prove it by evidence (I don’t have her video-taped 24/7) but because it is consistent with what I do know of her and our life together.

Third, to some degree, it is a choice.  I have no real choice in believing that snow is cold, or that the chair I am sitting in is black.  Unless I want to deny my sense experience, the belief is forced upon me.  Nor can my belief that two plus two equals four be a faith decision; it is self-evident and irrefutable.  But faith is a flower that can only be cultivated in a soil mixture of doubt and knowledge.

Now, if this is so, then we may begin to see why God makes faith our only acceptable response to Him: Since faith is a choice, it involves moral, and not just intellectual, implications.  That is, to some degree, I will choose not just whether there is a God or not, but if I want there to be a God or not.  This is not to imply faith has no intellectual content, but to affirm that is also has moral content.  Reason can lead me to the water, but it can’t make me drink.  I still must choose.

This is then consistent with that, as C. S. Lewis said, hell is locked from the inside.  The believer says to God, “I want you”, the unbeliever says, “I don’t want you”, and God says to them both, “Your will be done”.

Finally, we should also stop to ponder the question of what effect it would have on our faith if God was more obvious, and his ways shown with certainty to be true.  For example, why doesn’t God automatically and visibly reward each act of faith and obedience?  Every time I refuse some tempting sin, or every time I obey Him, why doesn’t He boom from Heaven, “Good job!”, and send down a twenty dollar bill (or solve whatever problem is bothering me)?

When put in terms like these, it is easy to see how this would distort our relationship with God.  We would be treating Him as an object, something we manipulate for our own gain.  Faith here would not only be stunted, but warped.

The example of Israel may be instructive here.  If God was ever obvious, it was in His dealings with the Israelites, especially in the early years under the leadership of Moses.  Just think: they saw the plagues on Egypt.  They experienced the crossing of the Red Sea.  They heard God thunder from the top of Mt. Sinai.  In fact, the last verses of Exodus tell us that the visible sign of God’s presence was always with them:

In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud (representing God’s presence) lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if it did not life, they did not set out – until the day it lifted.  So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels. (Exodus 40: 36-38).

God certainly could not have been much clearer than that.  Yet, the faith and obedience of the Israelites in the desert was anything but exemplary.  Philip Yancey notes:

I also noticed a telling pattern in the Old Testament accounts: the very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelite’s faith.  Why pursue God when He had already revealed Himself so clearly?  Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results? …In short, why should the Israelites act like adults when they could act like children?  And act like children they did, grumbling against their leaders, cheating on the strict rules governing manna, whining about every food or water shortage. (Disappointment with God)

On the contrary, when God wanted to raise up David as His ideal King (thus representing His people) He did so by often seeming silent and even unfair (just check out the Psalms).

In short, God knows what He is doing with us, and His silence and hiddenness have purpose.

Random thoughts on life, the universe and everything