Sunday, April 17, 2011

Jim Carey, The Number 23, Calvinism and the Sovereignty of God


For those of you unfamiliar with the term but quite familiar with the practice, apophenia is generally understood to be the obsessive preoccupation with something and its perceived relationship or connectivity to all things. This relationship or its presence is repeatedly sought and achieved through rationalistic schematizing which enables a person to build relationships between things, even two of the most unrelated things possible. An illustration of this is looking up to the clouds and finding shapes of animals. If it is a horse you wish to see then at some point you will find a cloud with enough shape that you can interpret it to be a horse. The apophenic person, however, does not just find one horse on one day with the understanding that he or she made it happen through interpretation, rather every day, maybe constantly, the clouds will present to them all kinds of shapes and sizes that inevitably are claimed to be horses.

Apophenia succeeds because it is constructed upon a system of “false positives. What is meant by this is that the validation of what people believe they perceive is not a result of substantiated reality or empirically observed certainties but of an interpretive reality where they are able to arrange the varying elements they have at hand to provide a conclusion, message, image and so on that facilitates for them a positive affirmation of that which they seek to find. In the most basic terms they see what they wish to see while ignoring anything else that may properly deny them a validation of what they wish to see.

Apophenic behavior is something probably most, if not all, adult humans have practiced to some degree. Attempting to find validation and relevance of existence and an adequate explanation of the universe, both micro and macro, is an inevitable journey of the human mind. And for the Christian this discovery of the apposite, while spiritually removed from the unbeliever, still has with it the human mind, its strengths and undeniable foibles.

Jim Carey?

Now accelerate with me to a conglomeration of thought that serves as the impetus for my submission. Some time back I watched a movie starring Jim Carey entitled The Number 23. The movie is centered around Carey’s character named Walter Sparrow and his discovery of a book titled “The Number 23”. And while the movie’s plot here is not what is in view as the contributor to the discussion, the premise that all things lead to the number 23 is. Throughout the movie Sparrow sees presence of the number 23 wherever and whenever he can by arranging whatever numbers are on hand to produce its preeminence. He is apophenic.

And so, along the way while watching the movie I was struck rather smartly with the parallelism of the rationalism of Carey’s apophenic character and that of the acquisition of theological determinations and dogma within the Augustinian/Reformed/Calvinistic (ARC) approach to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.

Divine Sovereignty Calvinist Style 

While most adults generally understand the concept of divine sovereignty and certainly most theologically inclined Christians have a working definition, the Calvinist’s definition has a distinction which purposely induces a conscious dissimilarity between theirs and that of others and does so when referring to divine sovereignty or the sovereignty of God with the phrase, "the absolute sovereignty of God" (this nuanced term may be a hint of what possibly provides the impetus for some Calvinists toward an apophenic trend in their theological posture as it relates to claims regarding divine sovereignty). That is to say, instead of referring to the sovereignty of God, Calvinists prefer the term the absolute sovereignty of God to make clear they have a posture separate from others.

To substantiate this observation and amplify the Calvinistic distinction here are some statements by well known and lesser teachers who affirm this disposition within Calvinism:

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty lies at the foundation of Christian theology…the center of gravity in the system of Christian truth—the sun around which all the lesser orbs are grouped

For the sovereignty of God is literally revealed on every page of Holy Writ. Every page of the bible is God's Word and makes the claim that God is to be recognized, heard, believed on, obeyed, and thanked.

Additionally from Kuiper (at the same link):

When God wills that a man sins, and when He so rules that a man commits that sin in his life, God does this without becoming the author of the sin in any sense. God hates all sin; God detests those sins which He sovereignly wills that man commits.

And finally on pages 18-19 in his book Trusting God, the well known Calvinist Jerry Bridges asserts (curiously this is very close to Kuiper’s statement):

The sovereignty of God is asserted, either expressly or implicitly, on almost every page of the Bible.

So what you have collectively within Calvinism is the pronouncement of divine sovereignty being not just divine rule but divine control; hence the redirection from sovereign rule to sovereign control. For the Calvinist divine rule and divine control are ultimately inseparable. A view which one might say, if Calvinism were a biological specimen, is written in the DNA of Calvinism itself.

In my view this is a distortion of the meaning of sovereignty found within Calvinism which switches from its real meaning (rule) to that of a proprietary or imposed meaning (total and/or absolute control) is the very distinction which produces the view within Calvinism reflected in the statements above, even the most egregious such as Kuiper (and others) who charge God with willing that man sin. And this great error (frankly blasphemous) stems from Calvinistic rationalism which determines because God is all powerful or omnipotent and omniscient (all knowing which includes all future events) it must then be assumed that in the employment of this omnipotence and omniscience within divine sovereignty there will be a resulting expression of God's sovereignty that extends beyond rule to that of control.

And of course the way to find false positives is to discover proof texts in Scripture which appear to state what you wish to find while ignoring other things present in Scripture which speak otherwise. Since this article is not an argument for the ARC view but an exploration of one of the many passages in Scripture which present narratives quite to the contrary, we will leave the mistake of proof-texting to the Calvinists who hold dearly to this view.

The Case of Job

Let me help here as I relate a segment from Dan Gracely’s book Calvinism a Closer Look (I will be doing a series on excerpts from the book in the near future). If you recall in the story of Job, God brought Job to the attention of Satan. And Satan was given permission to do as he wished with the limit of not taking Job’s life in order for Satan to try and prove his point that Job’s commitment to God was quid pro quo and not one based in principle. Satan then embarks on a campaign of personal destruction in the life of Job. Through many vehicles we see Satan in control in his debilitation of Job. In fact Job1:12 records:

The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Here we see God himself stating that God is no longer in power concerning many elements of Job’s life, instead Satan is. This certainly is not absolute or total now is it? And we see the administration of Satan using this power to kill Job’s children, execute a plan of financial disaster and inflict bodily disease upon Job. It was not the will of God for Job to undergo this; rather it was Satan’s will. Satan was was permitted to exercise his will on certain matters in Job’s life.

The Calvinist and God’s Decree

This brings us back to God and the Calvinist. For the Calvinist or anyone under the ARC system of thought, what arises most in their mind is that if God decreed all that would be (the general decree of God) then is this not a reflection of God’s will, thereby God being its cause by virtue of the exercise of His sovereignty? Well, if we were to think of it purely in the realm of circular rationalism this may be reasonable but the Bible declares otherwise. Clearly God did not will this, rather Satan did.

Then did Satan act outside of the decree of God? No. The decree of God as it pertains to this context was one of permission for Satan to exercise his will or his sovereignty. Therefore, what we see here is not the sovereignty of God forcing the act of Satan but the sovereignty of God allowing Satan the exercise of his own sovereignty.

It may come as a shock for some to hear this but God has given us personal or human sovereignty. We have the freedom to choose to do many things and none of these are expressions of God’s sovereignty, rather of ours. We choose what we will eat, what we will wear, who we will marry and so on. God’s sovereignty is expressed in allowing us to choose, not in the choices we make, those are our under our dominion.

Wrap Up

So back to the beginning. In the introduction we considered apophenia. And this is just what occurs with the Calvinist in many of these cases. In the case of Job the apophenic Calvinist will insist what we have constantly present and in control is the sovereignty of God and he (the Calvinist) will interpret every action by Satan and Job as ultimately a product of God’s sovereignty. It is not.

God certainly was sovereign and His divine sovereignty was never abdicated or diminished in this case nor in any other context where men or angels exercise their volition. This is because the biblically compatible view of divine sovereignty is not control but rule. In the case of Job, God’s rule was always in tact. He did not control Satan’s exercise but he did rule over it with limits.

And this is how we must understand, properly, the nature of divine sovereignty. It is rule, not control. And in the end, unlike Bridges and others who apophenically declare that on every page of the Bible the sovereignty of God is present, we must understand what really is present in its proper context. If and when God exercises His divine prerogative to act such as causing a donkey to talk, we must acknowledge it and determine what we may learn from it but when it is not present we must not impose upon a context what we wish to find thereby coming to gross misunderstandings; namely the kind that lead to claims that God wills men and/or angels to sin.

John MacArthur, a devout Calvinist, provides a much more theologically perspicacious view on that matter. And though I certainly would love to discuss other statements by MacArthur that do not always reflect this tempered view but tend to sympathize with the extreme view above (he seems torn at times), nevertheless it is worthwhile to cite a Calvinist Teacher who is not compelled by its pervasive rationalism on the matter (though in other areas of theology MacArthur does seemed sucked into this regrettable vortex):

Final Words

Tomorrow, if you cheat on your spouse, the bible does not treat this as an expression of the sovereignty of God, rather as an expression of human sovereignty. God has given you free reign over many things, they are yours to manage and yours for which you must answer. God’s sovereignty expresses itself by permitting you to make these choices but not the choices themselves.

So when you find in Scripture all sorts of events, unlike the apophenic nature of Calvinism, you need to resist the urge to project upon texts the presence or expression of God’s sovereignty where it is not intended. The evil of this world is not an expression of God’s sovereignty; it is an expression of its agents. However, if you wish to find in Scripture God's sovereignty where it is not intended to be expressed, you will nevertheless find it. After all, as the opening states those engaged in apophenia ignore findings which do not validate what they wish to see. And if this is the case, my friend, you have a case of apophenia.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Myth of the Spiritual Desert Part 2


Last month I posted the Myth article which was kindly linked by Lisa Robinson at Theologica (she is also a contributor at the Parchment and Pen Blog of Credo House Ministries) in which she solicited some responses from a much more broad and present audience regarding the proposition(s) in the article. After reading the responses and considering some of their approaches I am compelled to respond in a Part 2.

I believe there is great value in addressing concerns of those who take issue with any theological proposition because it provides for both its proponents and those challenging it an opportunity to retract, modify or refine their view. Since reading the responses I have joined Theologica so that I may participate in the varying discussions. However, on this occasion because the topic originates here I want to render the service of my response at my blog which will permit far greater movement in the exercise. Each response I address will be without citation to authorship since their identity is not relevant.  So let me begin here:

1. No, I don't think there are spiritual deserts in the sense that we are without God and His presence.  There are times that most of us…find ourselves struggling with the blackness of depression and despair…We should indeed trust God in those times.  We should cling to the promise of His indwelling Spirit and the promise of His presence with us…We shouldn't define our spirituality by our experiences, but by Christ.  I don't see any problem with giving a descriptive label to some circumstances, though. I also think one needs to read the Piper quote in context, also.  I think they would come away with a different view than the person who wrote the blog.

This response best represents one of the overriding principles taught in Scripture which is the promise of God, to us, that He is always present and as such this promise (as stated in various ways throughout Scripture) must not give ascendancy to our experiences. With regard to descriptive labels, I do agree they are appropriate with one key essential which is that when they are used they must be accurate. And the term spiritual desert I believe is doctrinally or biblically misleading with respect to God's promise of continuity in our lives which is the issue at hand. As to Piper, I happily resubmit the quote and do so in the context of his emotionalism laden erring doctrine of Christian Hedonism.  But that is a discussion for another day.

2. But I get the sense that he is denying that reality, that to equate feelings of abandonment and discouragement with reality is to succumb to an unbiblical emotionalism that is seeped in mysticism.  I think this denies our very humanity. 

Feelings are real, I do not deny this but feelings are just that, feelings. They are not spiritual realities. While your feelings go from up and down or calm to elated none of these are adequate or even biblical gauges for what is real, spiritually. In fact, to rely on emotions, even in part no matter how minuscule, is to deny the very nature of our spirituality!

3. You know another thing I kind of object to is that he suggests that the experiences of the bible characters are extraordinary and we shouldn't compare ourselves with them.  Well, why not? 

My objection is not that we cannot compare ourselves with the experiences of others in the bible but that we cannot impose upon those contexts our experiences which may not be parallel. And this is a common practice by many believers and of course is encouraged by many Teachers. And even when we may, in part, find a principle in a biblical event which applies to the separate context of our lives we cannot claim the whole if it does not apply.  And the examples I gave are quite fitting as displays of contexts often abused by believers in this way.

4. David spoke of the valley of the shadow of death. Periods where God seems absent. The Bible has more than a few words for that. 

Let’s address Psalm 23 and the valley of the shadow of death and see what the “more than a few words for that” are from God's Word.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake. 
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

Had the respondent paid closer attention he would have noticed what immediately followed, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death", which is, “I will fear no evil; For thou art with me”. David understood that it is not God’s removal of Himself but our ignorance or denial of His presence which robs us of our spiritual benefit. In fact he goes on to say that even in the presence of his enemies God prepares a table for him and his cup runs over. In the seemingly bleakest moments David understands he is in no desert with regard to God, rather God is ever present.  

5. Christ, at the crucifixion, sure thought God had foresaken him.  Wouldn't that alone indicate that we feel His presence at some times more than others?  Was a perfect Christ buying into emotionalism?

As a segue into my closing thoughts this particularly response is very fitting. Our Lord Jesus did not just think he was abandoned rather He knew in fact that he was suffering the separation that we no longer must suffer. It is this very act by our Lord Jesus which insures that we never again will be forsaken, separated or find ourselves in a spiritual desert. And to bring this into consideration as it was is to demonstrate a very grave misapprehension of the scope and nature as well as the blessings and benefits of our reconciliation to God in Christ.

The concept of spiritual deserts for the believer remains built upon a non-biblical foundation. Either experiences are being elevated or the promises of God ignored and/or denied. I do realize people have feelings but our feelings or even our best efforts to use our human senses as detectors of the presence of God will never work. 

God has not said that he will never forsake us, that his Holy Spirit permanently indwells us, that in fact the Trinity, the Shekinah Glory, has taken up residence in us and that we are walking temples of God because can detect it through some experience and if such experiences are not present then we are in a spiritual desert. It is not just that we are not but we cannot be in spiritual deserts because this would deny the proclamations of God’s abiding presence.

Perhaps you find yourself still frustrated or still thinking about times you simply seem not to be hearing from God or sensing His direction. Again I present to you the declaration of Scripture. He speaks daily in His Word, more so God speaks any time we expose ourselves to His Word. He does not speak through emotions or experiences rather through His Word. Even our experiences are understood in light of His Word and not His Word in light of our experiences. Your experiences may be saying,  "empty", "silence", "no motivation" or "depression" and so on.  God's Word says, "I will never leave you or forsake you". Your challenge is to believe Him over yourself.

Finally, it may be you are in a season of negative discipline; even now, in your state of negative pruning God is with you. In fact who do you think is doing the pruning? But you feel bad, isolated, abandoned, and empty and so on. Okay, certainly such feelings are to be expected but what does that have to do with God’s presence? Actually nothing.  Those are your feelings, not indicators of God’s presence. God’s presence is promised by Him, not us.  We cannot be the assurance or insurance of such a promise, only He can.

Christian, you have a choice to either believe the Word of God or trust your experiences. Open your spiritual eyes and ears to the God that surrounds you, to the God that indwells you and to the God that cannot leave you and will never leave you because He has promised it so and be blessed every moment in His presence as you hear from Him in His wonderful and eternal Word preserved for us that we receive it and live by it through faith by the power of his Holy Spirit which resides in us.