Does Reinhold Niebuhr believe in God?

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent Protestant theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (March 8, 1948).  More recently, Barack Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher (Brooks). Niebuhr is author of the well-known serenity prayer. 

God give us the grace to accept things that cannot be changed.

Courage to change the things that should be changed.

And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

While many readers admire Niebuhr’s wisdom, fewer have been able to discern his theology.  Some find none at all.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. spoke for many agnostics in wondering whether Niebuhr’s wisdom on human nature had anything to do with his Christian theology (Crouter, p 96).  He was wrong.  Niebuhr’s theology is deep, sophisticated, and informs the two concepts by which he understands the day-to-day world: idolatry and sin.  Yet about one of the most terrible issues of our age, annihilatory evil, Niebuhr is led astray by his own theology.

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Psychology of God

Psychology of God

I’m going to look at some psychological reasons for belief in God.  Whatever I uncover will say nothing whatsoever about the existence of God.  Referring to the human need for God helps us understand our need for transcendence.  But the need does not prove or disprove God, which is impossible in any case.  Good psychology is not the same as good theology. Theology is concerned with how we should talk about God, and to God, especially in times of trial and pain.  Psychology is about the need for transcendence.

The inspiration for this post is the fear of death experienced by many Christians.  The website www.billygraham.org is filled with emails like the following.  “I’m a good Christian, but as I get older I’m terrified of death.”  That’s OK, I want to say to the woman who sent the email; everyone is afraid of death.  Christianity doesn’t take away that fear; it just makes death meaningful.  For what people fear most is not death, but meaningless death, in which one lived and died for nothing.  Seen from this perspective, it’s not just religion that gives meaning to death, and hence to a life lived toward death, as all lives do.  Participation in great art or music (enjoying as well as making it) gives life meaning, a meaning that will continue after my death in the ennobling activities I give myself to.  So too does love of natural beauty.

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Do you have soul?

Do you have soul? 

I imagine that most Christians believe they have a soul.  I imagine most believers of all faiths believe in the soul, though what they mean by the term “soul” varies considerably.  Surprising then is how unclear the concept of the soul is within Christianity itself.  The Bible has two different accounts of the fate of the soul, and attempts to reconcile them are clumsy.

Some passages of the Bible suggest that when you die, your soul goes immediately to heaven.  Jesus promised this to the thief hanging on the cross beside him when he says “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)  At other times, Jesus referred to resurrection as ῇ ἀναστάσει, which most likely refers to the raising up of the dead at the end of the present age (Matthew. 22:29-33). 

Other books of the Bible emphasize the resurrection of the body. 

It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43) 

The resurrection of the body at the end of days is so central to Christianity that it is included in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. 

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Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

The standard Christian view of sin and salvation is not a pretty one.  Salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God. Salvation doesn’t mean being saved from yourself or the devil.  Salvation is being saved from God’s wrath, which condemns to hell all who have broken his law.

All of us have sinned against God and deserve judgment.  But Jesus never sinned.  He lived the Law of God perfectly.  Jesus is perfectly righteous.  “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)  Through his crucifixion, Jesus bore our sins in His body and suffered in our place.  

Escaping the judgment of God means having faith in Jesus Christ.  It has nothing to do with doing good works.  “Through grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  You are saved by grace through faith. 

When you have faith in Christ, then Christ’s righteousness is given to you, and you give your sins to Jesus.  “It’s like a trade.  He gets your sin.  You get His righteousness.”  (https://carm.org/what-is-salvation)  It sounds more like blackmail to me.  Be righteous because God will send you to hell forever if you aren’t. 

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Gospel of John: Christ’s return is now

Gospel of John: Christ’s return is now

 

 

This post covers a number of different aspects of John’s gospel.  I especially like what is called John’s realized eschatology, his theory of the end time.  We should not and need not wait for Advent.  It appeared when Christ appeared.  If we have faith in Christ and follow his commandments then we have already been saved.  I’ll cover some other topics as well

Almost everyone agrees that John is unique among the gospels.  While the other three gospels indirectly refer to each other or a common source, often using almost identical language, John doesn’t.  For this reason, the gospels are often divided into the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), and John.  The opening of John’s gospel resembles none of the other gospels.  Nor does John’s Jesus speak in parables.  There are other differences.

John’s gospel was written no later than 90 AD, and possibly a decade or two before.  It is sometimes argued that the apostle John was the author, but while this is possible (Christ was crucified around 30 AD), the main argument against it is that there is an intellectual complexity to John that seems unlikely in a fisherman with no formal education, even if he had learned to read and write Greek.  John’s Greek is simple, but his story is not.

It is also argued that the Gospel was written in layers, often called form criticism.  It’s probably true, but I’m not going to go into that. 

God’s relationship with Jesus

God is identical with Jesus, but Jesus stands in a relationship to God.  In which case they can’t be identical.  I think this summarizes chapter 1, verses 1-14 pretty well.  And it’s confusing. 

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A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is myth?

A Christmas message, or does it matter if the Bible is  myth?  Ask Rudolf Bultmann.

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. 

Who wrote this about the wonder world of the New Testament?  One of the many aggressive atheists who contend with religion these days?  No, one of the most distinguished theologians of the twentieth-century, Rudolf Bultmann (1984, p 4).  The mythological world of the New Testament was the everyday world of men and women over two thousand years ago.  Demons were everywhere, and heaven and hell were real places.  Many Christians no longer believe in this magical world. The result is to question the relevance of the gospel.  Needed, says Bultmann (1984), is a demythologizing interpretation that retains the truth of the kerygma.  

What sense does it make to confess today ‘he descended into hell’ or ‘he ascended into heaven,’ if the confessor no longer shares the underlying mythical world picture of a three-story world?  (p 4)

What’s kerygma

Kerygma (κῆρυγμα) means preaching, and it refers to the message of the gospels.  Whatever that is, it’s not the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed; both refer to the three-story world.  For Bultmann (1984, p 12), the kerygma refers to God’s decisive act in Christ, above all his death and resurrection.  The question of course is why isn’t this just as mythical as a three-story world filled with angels and demons?

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Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?

Christ: vindicator or lamb of God?  

If Jesus Christ is the Lord’s vindicator, how can he be at the same time the Lamb of God?  In trying to understand this and more, I’m going to follow the lead of a marvelous work of scholarly imagination by Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.  This does not mean that I agree with it.

The winnowing fork

Consider the image of the winnowing fork, which Christ uses to separate the wheat from the chaff, burning the chaff in an endless fire.  Attributed to John the Baptist by Matthew (3:12), the image captures perfectly Christ’s self-description of his mission: to bring hope to the pious and powerless, and punishment to the rich, who have had their reward in this world (Luke: 6:23-24).  But the statement I will never understand is Christ’s explanation of why he speaks in parables.

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mark 4.10-12)

No matter how many times it is explained to me in terms of Christ’s regret and understandable anger at those who will never understand (Young 1998, pp 263-264), I cannot make sense of Christ’s claim.  Why would he speak in code?  Are there no second chances?  This is not the statement of a loving God.  Christ’s statement has been explained as “the wistful longing of frustrated love,” but it doesn’t sound very wistful to me. 

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What’s so great about faith?

What’s so great about faith?  It depends on what you mean.  Most people today seem to regard faith as a so-called “leap of faith,”  in which we simply choose to believe something that can’t be demonstrated or proven.  Society, or one’s own needy self, says that I need to believe, and I do, keeping quiet about my doubts, if I even let myself have any.

Real faith is given by the grace of God.  We don’t choose faith; faith chooses us.  Nevertheless, there are things we can do to receive it.  Prime among these is humility, and living as Christ would have us live, as though we were men or women who deserve grace.

But how do I know if I have received grace?

There are two answers.  If you have to ask, you haven’t.  If you think you have received grace, you haven’t.  Just continue to live as though you were worthy of grace.  In the end perhaps this is the most we can hope for.  What’s more important: to know that you have grace, or to be worthy of it?

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