In the Present Tense

October 12, 2010

First Principles

I apologize for the long delay between posts. I’ve been unbelievably busy.


This blog is for believers. If you don’t believe in God, there are other posts I’ll write just for your consideration. My friends know I don’t insist people believe what I do, but welcome honest questions.

But this one is just for those who believe in God, specifically the God of the Bible.  And I don’t intend to argue fine points here. Quite the opposite. I’m interested only in talking about broad truths. Not details about the six-day creation, or exactly the role of women. Though they are important, that’s not what I want to discuss.

My dear sister reminded me recently of something I shared with her some thirty years ago. She said it had spared her from many a strange doctrine. I know it has always served me well, so I share it here.

Many of the debates and issues which rage in the church through the years can seem quite confusing. Often both sides of the debate appear quite reasonable, or at least plausible. Sometimes neither one seems clear. Time and again I have found refuge in “First Principles.”

Jesus demonstrated this approach in the question regarding divorce. He was asked if men could divorce their wives, as Moses said. Note the subtle trap. “Do you agree with Moses? or are you heretical?” Rather than taking the bait, Jesus resorted to first principles. “In the beginning it was not so.”

If we believe in God, and that He communicated the important things to us through the Bible, then we cannot go wrong with first principles. Belief in first principles comes down to something this simple: When God created human beings and the earth they lived in, He knew what he was doing. Whenever we are confronted with a teaching that says to us, either implicitly or explicitly, “God didn’t know what He was doing,” then we know something is wrong with the teaching.

Let me give you another example. More than thirty years ago, a bunch of cassette tapes were circulating (for those under 25, think of them as podcasts) which declared that we should eliminate all oil and oily foods from our diet. Lots of conscientious and health-conscious people went about doing just that.

As a teacher and school principal at the time, a number of church members asked me my opinion. I said, “It can’t be right.” That surprised them. Some wanted to know my credentials as a dietitian or nutritionist– I had none. Many wanted to know how I could be so certain. For me it was a simple case. Fruits and nuts were part of the diet God gave man in Eden. Few things contain higher percentages of oil than nuts. So, “Did God know what He was doing when He gave us nuts to eat?” My answer had to be yes, God knew what He was doing, and that meant that the teaching about eliminating all oily foods couldn’t be true.

Another quick example. In grad school, Education students had to take a course titled “Comparative Education,” which explored the similarities and differences of education in various cultures. Since I was at Andrews University, my class was itself very international. One student was from Hong Kong, another from Egypt, a third from Thailand, yet another from the West Indies– and so on. One day during discussion, our Egyptian student, a young man, began to declare that the problem with education in the US and most of the West was “co-education.” Educating young men and young women in the same classes, he maintained, could only lead to immorality and corruption.

Since this was the late 1970’s (I know, I know, I’m really old), and the remnants of hippie culture dominated American campuses, it was hard to argue with the fellow. After his verbal volley, the teacher, instead of answering him, asked the class members to answer.  As each of my fellow students answered, it became increasingly clear that the main arguments they had were cultural– in other words, “In my country, we do it this way.” The debate was hardening, not resolving. Finally, the teacher looked at me.

“All I know to do is to go back to the Beginning,” I said. “In Genesis it’s clear  that Eden was the first school, Adam and Eve the first students, and God their teacher,” I continued. “That sounds like co-education to me. If that was God’s ideal design in the beginning, I don’t see how it can be ‘the problem’ today. We humans are sinful, and we have problems, so those problems show up in all our institutions. But unless we have clear direction otherwise, it seems to me that God’s first plan is still the best.”

I still believe this. If Eden was the perfect plan, then the closer we can approach to it, the better.  I believe in all things, God knew what He was doing. And so many, many questions of today that seem perplexing to some, seem much simpler to me. I will mention one are that I will take up in the future, and that’s the environmental movement. First principles have a lot to tell us about that.

As always, I welcome comments and questions. I have offered this because it has literally spared me many an anxious moment, and helped me navigate some of the trickiest currents we encounter in life. I commend it to you.

June 21, 2010

Elijah’s Razor on Father’s Day

Filed under: Culture and the Bible, Present Truth, The End, Women in the Bible, Worship — edoutlook @ 2:57 am

I’ve been contemplating this for some time. I’ve hesitated, because I am generally suspicious of manifestos and ultimata. I’ve wondered whether I should go out on this particular limb. As this Father’s Day comes to a close, I feel compelled to finally declare myself.

This blog is titled “In the Present Tense” because I am a Seventh-day Adventist, and I believe the uniquely Adventist contribution is the one of “Present Truth.”

As George Knight has documented, “Present Truth” was not a single doctrinal position, but rather a dynamic concept of bringing God’s Word to bear on the most important issues of a particular time and place. In 1843 it was the Second Coming. In the summer of 1844 it was the “Tenth day of the seventh month.” In November 1844 it was the Heavenly Sanctuary. In 1859 it was the 7th day Sabbath. And so on.

Some other place and some other time I will explore this concept in greater detail, but today I want to focus on what I believe is Present Truth today, right now. What I think is the most important thing to realize here and now.

Frankly, I expect that this will result in a good deal of criticism, even ridicule. That’s one reason I have put it off until now. But, on this Father’s day, I feel impelled to declare my mind.

I believe that the most important thing for today is found in Malachi 4: 5, 6.

“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”

From our earliest days, Adventists have considered themselves the Elijah movement, those who act as forerunners of the King, as we proclaim the Second Coming. But for some reason we have been hesitant to proclaim what the Bible clearly designates as the Elijah message: Turning the hearts of the fathers to the children.

One consequence, I believe, is that we are hemorrhaging young adults at lethal rate. And few seem to either note it or even care. Another symptom of this failure to emphasize this crucial truth is that we are engaged in essentially trivial controversies.

Gay marriage, women’s ordination, worship wars, music –these are but a few of the highly controversial issues that generate so much heat and produce so little light among us today. And I believe that focusing on turning the hearts of the fathers to the children either resolves these disputes or puts them into perspective which makes them manageable.

You may have heard of Occam’s Razor, which basically states that the simplest explanation that takes all facts into account is likely to be correct. Well, this is my razor–call it “Elijah’s Razor.” From now on, if one side of an issue can be shown to aid in turning the hearts of the fathers to their children, then Elijah’s razor says that is the preferred position. If it  detracts from that cause, Elijah’s razor condemns it. If it has no effect either way, then Elijah’s Razor declares it irrelevant.

That’s it. That’s my declaration. I don’t want to pick any fights or start any controversies. But if someone asks me about any issue, from gay marriage to government health care to women’s ordination to worship and beyond, I’ll apply Elijah’s Razor. And there’s no better time to declare this focus than Father’s Day.

October 14, 2009

Idealism or Immaturity?

One thing that our study of the Bible reveals to us is that–I know this will sound shocking–God is not an idealist. How can I say that?

First of all, God does not have to imagine perfection. He knows what it is, and precisely how far short even our best efforts fall. As our examination of God’s dealings with humans in the Bible demonstrates, when it comes to human behavior, God is not “all-or-nothing.”

Seeing what we now consider the deplorable condition of women in the days of Moses, God did not demand equal rights and equal status for women immediately; rather, he commanded an improvement that would make a difference for the better.

In the same way, God did not demand that Israel go from unlimited retribution to forgiving 70 times 7. Instead he limited retribution to “an eye for an eye,” as opposed to  being avenged 77 times (See Gen 4:24).

God’s actions in the Bible contrast strongly with many who claim to represent His views today. For them, it is indeed all or nothing. I regularly receive a newsletter from an explicitly Christian periodical that continually instructs me as to what God wants me to do concerning certain political issues (and no, it’s not “Focus on the Family”). They’re continually telling me that I live in a selfish, unjust society. Apparently they think that’s news. It seems to me that’s just the condition of sinful human beings.

Seeing human society as imperfect, they demand it become perfect, immediately. They claim to represent God when chanting “What do we want?” “Social Justice!” “When do we want it?” “NOW!”

That’s supposed to be an expression moral courage. But it sounds more to me like a tantrum. I have seen many a 5-year-old demanding something they thought would improve their world. They always want it NOW! We don’t consider that idealism, but immaturity.

As it happens, nearly 20 years ago I was instrumental in changing what I viewed as an unjust law in my state of Iowa, that effectively prevented families from teaching their children at home. For years, people had been demanding that the law be changed NOW! And those lobbying the legislature demanded total and complete freedom, with no accountability whatsoever to government. I sympathized with the goal, but found the methods objectionable–even counterproductive.

A number of us went to work in a much different way, working at the grassroots, informing people, helping them understand how their legislators thought and acted. At the same time, I lobbied the legislators, introducing them to cordial — not shouting– constituents who wanted to homeschool. It took time and effort, almost none of which gave the immediate feeling of moral superiority of a demonstration, and received minimal media attention.

And the absolutists–who wanted absolute perfection, NOW!–opposed our efforts all the way. Did we achieve perfection? Of course not. That’s not available in this world. But it’s interesting. The very people who asked the Governor to veto our bill 20 years ago want to take credit for it now!

I like to think what we did more closely resembles God’s approach. We didn’t insist on perfection, NOW, from a group of imperfect people, the legislature. We did what we could to get the most improvement in conditions. Instead of demanding perfect justice, we did our best to minimize injustice. No one today denies that we made things better for families; and we never claimed we achieved perfection.

There is a tendency today to contrast whatever exists, or whatever happens,as a result of decisions, with some ‘ideal.’ In some quarters this is hailed as ‘idealism,’ and to be encouraged. But the Bible reveals a record of continual, gradual improvement in human conditions.

Yes, at the 2nd Coming, God will erase all injustice, and bring in a New and Perfect Earth and Society. But that is His work, not ours. Until then, while we strive for continual improvement, we should not delude ourselves that we can, by our efforts, bring anything like heaven on earth. That is just another form of legalism, of self-righteousness. We need to remember that, absent the merits of Christ, our righteousness is as filthy rags. Until He comes, this will remain true individually–and as a society.

June 6, 2009

Position of Women in the Bible-II

Filed under: Culture and the Bible, Present Truth, Women in the Bible — edoutlook @ 3:45 pm

When we look at the status of women in the Bible, then, we’re looking at something which changes, depending upon where and when the reference took place.

The tendency is to ask, “How does this command concerning women compare with what our culture thinks today?”,  and on that basis,the Bible generally comes up short. But this is a false comparison, because the choice for the women concerned, the ones who would be affected by what God said through the prophets, did not have the choice of either the prophet’s declaration or today’s status. Their options were the prophet’s declaration concerning their status, or the prevailing status in their culture at the time.

When Moses set the conditions for divorce, they didn’t have the option of ‘no fault,’ alimony, and child support vs. a ‘bill of divorcement.” Their choice was between the ‘bill of divorcement,’ or simply being abandoned.  More that a thousand years later– that ‘s right, more than a thousand years— Jesus made it clear that God considered that the only legitimate  grounds for divorce was sexual infidelity. And if you read the narrative, it’s clear that even the disciples considered this radical.

Had God’s attitude toward divorce changed that much? Of course not. But, as the disciples reaction indicates– and these were the guys who believed in Him–people can only take so much change at time. And when confronted with change beyond their abilities, humans just bive up. So the real question becomes, “Which is better? A little progress, or none at all?”

And when we carefully examine the Bible’s teachings concerning the treatment of wome, in context, we will find that God always opts for progress, even a little progress, compared to the existing situation. at the time.

Having said that, there are some passages where the correct answer for today’s student is, “I don’t know.” That’s where I will have to be with “head covering” for women. I’m confident it’s not an essential matter one way or another, since those are explained repeatedly and in clear terms. My sense is it’s cultural, and I’ve seen several explanations for that. I’ve also seen counter-arguments for each of the specific cultural explanations. I’m not totally convinced of any of them, and to be honest, it’s not something I believe is worthy of a great deal of effort on my part.. Someone may find/have found the definitive explanation for this, and I’ll be happy when I run into it. In the meantime, I have other things

One of those, being a “fool who rushes in” is to take up your question concering the “hatred of gays,” next. Would you like to focus that a little more, or shall I just venture in and hang myself without assistance:)?

June 3, 2009

The “Position of Women” in the Bible-I

Filed under: Inspiration, Present Truth, Women in the Bible — edoutlook @ 3:59 pm

I’m rushing back in to Cindy’s first question today.

1. Is the Bible fallible? In any way? How much have human beings had a hand in the Bible, and how much of it is “culture?” For example, women are told to keep their heads covered. Our answer is that it was a cultural thing in the day. How much of the Bible was culture and not directly applicable? How much is culture and, frankly, wrong?? (Ie. position of women, hatred of gays, racism against other cultures, etc)

Not surprisingly, both because Cindy is a woman, and because many share her concern, the first– and only recurring– evidence of fallibility in her question concerns women. To paraphrase (Fairly, I hope): How can the Bible be true when it condones second-class (and worse) treatment of women?

Now, as my first post on this subject hinted at, the real question is, “Why doesn’t the Bible demand treatment of women that comports with what my culture views as appropriate?”

I share Cindy’s culture, more or less, so I understand her concern. My point is, however, that our view (Cindy’s and mine) is culturally conditioned as well. And “we’re right, they’re wrong,” or “we’re better, they’re worse,” may not be the only options. Forgetting that we have cultural conditioning is a quick road to error.

The next thing to consider is this: When we speak of the Bible’s “treatment of women,” we’re talking about the status and treatment of women in many different cultures over a span of roughly 1600 years. I’m speaking of approximate times when the Bible was written–the time period covered is considerably longer. Exactly how long, I don’t think anyone knows.

It seems only realistic to recognize that women in a nomadic, herding culture might have a different status than in a static, urban culture. That women in Egypt in 1500 B.C. would be treated differently than women in Rome in 45 A.D. Women of Chemosh-worshiping Moab would have a different status than women of Dagon-worshiping Ninevah. And so on.

So when we speak of “the treatment of women in the Bible,” to be fair, we have to take into consideration the treatment of women in the culture to which the prophetic message was given. That may change things radically.

A pertinent, and sad, example of how culture affects such things can be found in the history of Christian missionaries in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. European and American missionaries took the gospel to Africa. As part of their teaching, they thought to change the treatment of women. Some taught that polygamy was wrong, and that a man should divorce all but his first wife.

What they failed to take into account was that the surrounding culture didn’t have any way to relate to a divorced wife. Typically, a divorced woman had done something terribly wrong, and often the only way for her to survive was prostitution. The culture simply had no category to understand or relate to a woman who was divorced because her husband didn’t any longer believe in polygamy. So many otherwise innocent and conscientious wives were put in a terrible position.

In hoping to improve the treatment of women generally, and somewhat in the abstract, these well-meaning missionaries drastically worsened their actual situation. They had overlooked the influence of culture, both theirs, and the culture of the people they intended to help.

In the missionaries’ culture, divorce was common, and not a disgrace. Single women, even single mothers, could hold jobs and make their way. But the African cultures they were dealing with had no such categories or support mechanisms. When non-Christian members of the community saw a divorced woman, they saw a disgraced and unwanted woman.

A better way, perhaps, would have been to leave the existing marriages alone, and teach husbands to treat their wives better, while encouraging younger men and women to monogamy. But that would have left the missionaries open to criticism from many in their home culture, who after all were financing the missions, that they were not teaching “proper treatment of women.”

So the counsel of the Bible concerning the status and treatment of women must be understood in the context of the culture to which that counsel was given. God recognizes that humans can only change so much at a time. And even if an individual, say, a polygamous husband, may change his views radically and be willing to divest himself of all but one wife, the wider culture simply will not adjust so rapidly. And that could lead, as we have seen and God would have known from the beginning, to more harm than good.

I’m willing to take up individual examples, Cindy (and anyone else), but I felt first we needed to understand the crucial role of culture– both ours and others.

Hope this is helpful.

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