Faith Unconfined by Time or Place

From a book I’ve been reading this week, remarking on John 4:

“The woman asked our Lord whether Samaria or Jerusalem was the true place of worship. He answers that henceforth worship is no longer to be limited to a certain place: ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall ye worship the Father.’ As God is Spirit, not bound by space or time but in His infinite perfection always and everywhere the same, so His worship would henceforth no longer be confined by place or form, but importance.

How much our Christianity suffers from this, that it is confined to certain times and places. A man, who seeks to pray earnestly in the church or in the closet, spends the greater part of the week or the day in a spirit entirely at variance with that in which he prayed. His worship was the work of a fixed place or hour, not of his whole being. God is a Spirit: He is the Everlasting and Unchangeable One; what He is, He is always and in truth. Our worship must even so be in spirit and truth: His worship must be the spirit of our life; our life must be worship in spirit as God is Spirit.”

Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, 7.

As I shared this paragraph with my group of high school campers yesterday, they (and I) were struck by the concept of a faith unconfined by time or place. What does it mean to be a Christian person who does things, rather than merely a person who does Christian things? How do these students fully integrate their faith into their mindset so that nothing escapes the Christ filter: that we see all things through the lens with which Jesus saw them?

I remember the fall semester of my Sophomore year in high school… coming up on four years ago… when this change happened in me. Oswald Chambers had written about exactly this concept in MUFHH one day. I distinctly remember ignoring my math teacher to read instead. It took a real work of the Spirit to affect this change in me, especially at that time in my life, but the perspective shift was clear and long lasting. It still lasts today; it is how I see the world.

The eternality and omnipresence of God are considered two of his incommunicable attributes; ‘incommunicable,’ meaning, we cannot experience them in the same way he does. We also cannot really be faulted for failing to be eternal or to be everywhere at once. Is anyone going to blame you for those ‘failures’? No reasonable person would, because they are not possible. But like all the incommunicable attributes of God, they are only relatively incommunicable, because we can experience something like them.

This is what Murray means when he says “As God is Spirit… so his worship would henceforth no longer be confined.” Another way to put this statement is to generalize it as “As God is a certain way… so our worship should be too.” Our consistency as people and our ‘lifestyle’ of worship are not done just because they are considered good things, or their alternatives are worse, or they look good to non believers, or even because they are commanded. Rather, we are emulating the very Being of God himself in the best way we humans can.

ἀγαλλιάω (Agalliao)

A quick word study on ἀγαλλιάω (Agalliao; Strong #21) in the New Testament.

Definition

Thayer: to exult, rejoice exceedingly, be exceeding glad

Strong: From ἄγαν agan (much) and G242 [leap; spring up]; properly to jump for joy, that is, exult: – be (exceeding) glad, with exceeding joy, rejoice (greatly).

Mounce: to be filled with delight, with great joy

Usage

It appears that there are 11 New Testament uses:

Matthew 5:12 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad [agalliao], because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Context — immediately after the Beatitudes (or the final statement of them?) in addition to the other “Blessed are…” statements.

Luke 1:47 And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord / and my spirit rejoices [agalliao] in God my Savior, / for he has been mindful / of the humble state of his servant.’

Context — in the Magnificat, the song sung by Mary after she meets with Elizabeth. (Interesting, John the Baptist is described in the verses before as “the baby in my womb leaped for joy” which sounds suspiciously like the word agalliao, but is instead each word used individually (eskirtēsen en agalliasei (noun), leaped in exultation) rather than this portmanteau.

Luke 10:21 At that time Jesus, full of joy [agalliao] through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

Context — Jesus has just received back the 72 whom he had earlier sent out as missionaries. The antecedent to “these things” appears to be specifically the power of God to overcome the enemy (and snakes), but more general the “all things” later in verse 26.

John 5:35 You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy [agalliao] his light.

Context — After a section on the authority given by the Father to the Son, Jesus makes this statement in reference to John the Baptist, and then says that the person testifying that Jesus’s words are true is the Father, because the Father validates Jesus’s ministry through the miracles (“works”?) that he does.

John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced [agalliao] at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

Context — Right after Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being the children of Satan. They naturally object, saying that they are the children of Abraham. Here Jesus makes the claim that he existed before Abraham and then uses the title “I am” which almost certainly refers to the burning bush in Exodus 3. The author of Hebrew also has something to say about Old Testament figures looking forward to or rejoicing over seeing Jesus’s day.

Acts 2:26 [quoting Psalm 16] David said about him: “‘I saw the Lord always before me. / Because he is at my right hand, / I will not be shaken. / Therefore my heart is glad [agalliao] and my tongue rejoices; / my body also will rest in hope, / because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, / you will not let your holy one see decay. / You have made known to me the paths of life; / you will fill me with joy in your presence.

Context — At Pentecost, Peter is quoting Psalm 16 (from the LXX) and saying that David prophetically hinted at the eternal life of one of his descendants.

Acts 16:34 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy [agalliao] because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

Context — The Philippian Jailer who turned to Christ after an earthquake and hearing the testimony of Paul and Silas.

1 Peter 1:6, 8 In all this you greatly rejoice [agalliao], though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy [agalliao], for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Context — the beginning of Peter’s epistle (or perhaps encyclical) to the various exiles in Turkey. Peter is saying that believers are filled with joy (“inexpressible and glorious joy”) in both happy times and in the midst of suffering.

1 Peter 4:13 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed [agalliao] when his glory is revealed.

Context — roughly the same as before; later in the letter.

Revelation 19:7 Let us rejoice [agalliao] and be glad / and give him glory! / For the wedding of the Lamb has come, / and his bride has made herself ready.

Context– Babylon falls, which is probably symbolic of all of Sin itself being destroyed, near the end of Revelation. Then, several praise choruses break out in Heaven, including this one. We are to rejoice because the consummation of all things (wedding feast and bride imagery being relevant for this reason) is then about to happen soon.

The best rendering of this word in the NIV is either the above use of “overjoyed” in 1 Peter 4:13, or Jesus being “full of joy” in Luke 10:21.

Here are the non-apocryphal Septuagint (LXX) uses: 66 verses with 50 uses in the Psalms and 10 in Isaiah. (2 Sam. 1:20; 1 Chr. 16:31; Ps. 2:11; 5:11; 9:2, 14; 13:4f; 14:7; 16:9; 19:5; 20:5; 21:1; 31:7; 32:11; 33:1; 35:9, 27; 40:16; 48:11; 51:8, 14; 53:6; 59:16; 60:6; 63:7; 67:4; 68:3f; 70:4; 71:23; 75:9; 81:1; 84:2; 89:12, 16; 90:14; 92:4; 95:1; 96:11f; 97:1, 8; 98:4, 8; 118:24; 119:162; 132:9, 16; 145:7; 149:2, 5; Song 1:4; Isa. 12:6; 25:9; 29:19; 35:1f; 41:16; 49:13; 61:10; 65:14, 19; Jer. 49:4; Lam. 2:19; Hab. 3:18) (source)

The Precept Austin source (immediately above) also notes that “Agalliao is not used by secular Greek writers” and comments that this is likely because they did not have things to be so joyed about to need this strong of a word. Rienecker adds that agalliao “appears to be used always with the connotation of a religious joy, a joy that springs from the contemplation of God or God’s salvation.

Potential for Application

We cannot draw many applications just from an analysis of a word itself. This term and its positive usage in the New Testament do seem to indicate, at least, that our threshold for joy should be high. It is possible to reach this high threshold for joy. I would even make the stronger claim that we can understand joy this powerful through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, like in the Luke 10:21 section.

That this term does not appear in secular Greek texts (if true) implies either that it was an idiosyncratic term used only by people who had contact with the first person to coin the word, or that there was truly no “jumping for joy” absent of the power of God. I am not sure which is more reasonable. Peter advised Mark in writing his Gospel, yet both Matthew and Luke include variations on the Beatitudes while Mark does not; this eliminates the main potential source of downstream influence for use of this term, but even still, it could have just generally been in use during the first century in the region.

Three of these passages (Matthew and both the 1 Peter passages) describe joy in the midst of suffering. This joy is not just the usual word for joy (χαρά, chara), but instead the colorful word picture of “jumping for joy,” which goes further. In our times of sorrow, we want to do much less than be joyful, but Jesus and Peter both imply here that our joy should be further increased than normal.

Answering Objections 3: Faith is Unbelievable

Objector:

And for faith.. Can’t you believe in anything using faith?

Response:

Faith, Belief, Knowledge, having a Hunch, and Speculation are not distinct concepts, but rather, differing degrees of the same concept. We accept a thing as truth — call it X — on the basis of some other thing — call it Y — also being true and being at least somewhat indicative of X. How indicative does Y have to be on X? Well, that depends. If you are shooting for a Speculation, then not really very indicative at all; if a Hunch, then slightly indicative; if Faith, moderately indicative; if Belief, very indicative; if Knowledge, completely indicative. Think of these terms according to a sliding scale, not as distinct processes.

So then, we use “faith” in one of these ways every day. The classic though flawed example is that we daily sit in chairs even though — technically… — we have little reason to believe that that specific chair will hold us up this particular time.

Scientists, then, use faith all the time. Not in their science itself, as such; but nonetheless that all scientists depend upon a set of unfalsifiable beliefs. These beliefs are equally as questionable as the theist’s beliefs. Philosophers tend to call these “metaphysics” as a catch-all term, but others have come up with more clever terms like “worldview” or the “spectacles” through which one views the world. A person’s basic core beliefs in metaphysics cannot be disproved using the scientific method, which according to nearly all atheists is the way to prove everything. This sounds familiar… oh yeah.

So, the question is not “should we use faith to believe X,” but instead, “do we have a strong enough Y to not be exercising BLIND faith in X.” The answer to that question for Christianity, I am convinced, is yes. We may never fully establish the claims of Christianity beyond the faith level — as in, the arguments for Christianity may never become deductive, they may always retain some amount of slippery inductive flexibility. But even still, this retains the ability to reasonably believe without mere speculation or hunch holding.

Answering Objections 2: the Bible Supports Slavery

Objector:

the bible supports slavery

and later on in the debate:

It also says that you may beat your slave as long ad they don’t die.

further down:

It says that you can beat your slave.. That’s what it says.

 

Response:

  1. The objector, probably unintentionally, equivocates the term slavery across two different historical contexts. Slavery in the ancient world is not equal to slavery in the nineteenth century. This mistake is understandable, considering that in school we exclusively learned about slavery in US History. The differences are numerous, but to keep it simple, a helpful comparison is to indentured servants. These were people who sold their labor for 7 year blocks of time, became “slaves”, and were released again at the end of their due time. Here are some additional ways: slavery in the ancient world was unrelated to race, whereas in the US is was almost immediately about race; a slave in the ancient world could have any job, like being a poet, a farmer, a guard, a tutor, and so on, whereas in the US slavery was restricted to manual labor. (Granted, most jobs at the time were agricultural anyways, so this is only marginally true). There are more differences than these.
  2. Does the Bible “support slavery”? For the Bible to support something, it would be necessary to find a commandment that states “You can have slaves.” Now, such a commandment is nowhere to be found.
  3. Of course, the Bible still talks about slavery without outright endorsing it. Could the Bible implicitly nod to slavery, giving sanction to the practice without making the statement “You can have slaves”? Of course it could. But these are murky waters, for now we have to intuit the intention behind every reference to slavery — even when the text itself is silent. In these cases either scenario tends to be a valid interpretation. For example, moral codes like “An eye for an eye” can be seen as giving people the right to seek vigilante retribution against their enemy, and endorsing violence as the best way to deal with violence. OR, those same moral codes can be seen as a limit that bars the offended from extracting disproportionate punishment from the offender; the code could equally be read as “AT MOST an eye, for an eye” which is an equally valid reading.
  4. More complexity comes about when we distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive discussion in the text. Do we really think that, because the Bible so much as mentions a topic, it endorses that topic? Clearly not. For example, the Bible records various people engaging in polygamy throughout the Old Testament… but does that give license to polygamy? No, because we can see the consequences of those actions (which are numerous for Solomon) and use other Biblical principles to come to a more full understanding of the general topic (like that monogamy is represented in the beginning, and in parallel at the Wedding Feast in Revelation, etc.) which have importance for how we understand that general topic.
  5. My friend Kristina Olsen points this out: “the same passage that you mentioned about the slave beatings (Exodus 21) also mentions that if a master knocks his slave’s tooth out or destroys his slave’s eye, the slave must go free. Clearly, there are strict boundaries for harm. And that passage also says the slave shall be avenged if he dies by his master’s hand (vs. 20).” So, while the Bible does not, in this particular case, denounce slavery, it does place limits on the practice that likely exceeded the limits already in place.
  6. The Bible does depict slavery in a negative light at various points. The Israelites are slaves set free from Egypt (which later becomes a rallying point during the abolition movement). Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers (which is called “evil” in the text itself). The Israelites again become slaves during the Exile to Babylon, which is presented as being roughly the worst thing ever.
  7. An important place to look things in the Bible is also the New Testament. Most obviously we have Philemon, in which Paul requests that Philemon accept his former (runaway) slave Onesimus back into his household, not as a slave but as a freeman. This letter does not support or denounce slavery, though it was used heavily by both sides of the abolition debate in the US.
  8. If the Bible does not support or denounce slavery, then we could possibly look to history to see how Christians have used the Bible to support or denounce slavery. Now, this has exited the original discussion about the content of the Bible, but it could be helpful to examine anyway. This, too, is a jumbled mess. But I can at least point out that William Wilberforce in the UK along with almost all of the abolitionists in the US (Garrison, Douglass, Tappen, etc.) were both devout Christians and held their abolitionist perspective from a specifically Christian foundation. Consider also that abolitionism was first popularized (or, made more popular, since it was not actually “popular” until after it happened) during the Second Great Awakening and was mostly born (in the US) during the First Great Awakening. This is not a comprehensive case, but these are still good counterpoints to the claim that the Bible was always used to support slavery. See the book “America’s God” by Mark Noll for more on this.

The Bible does not “support” the nineteenth century institution of slavery with which we are all familiar. It does remain, on balance, mute regarding the legitimacy of economic bond-servitude as done in the ancient world. Particular rules are given to prevent the mistreatment of the slaves that are owned, which may or may not permit slavery, but certainly place a cap on its practice.

Answering Objections 1: Monotheism is almost Atheism

Yesterday during facebook argument #25014968076 of my life, some friends and I argued about atheism, faith, meta-ethical theory, scriptural inerrancy, and so on.

I feel a profound déjà vu every time these topics come up. Have they really been exhausted, or does everyone just learn 3/5 of the arguments and then point out the 2/5 hole in their opponent’s claims? We aren’t that comprehensive anyways; it all feels too familiar.

Oh well. Defending the faith is a long-time favorite topic of mine. (It is, roughly speaking, one of my college majors). So this debate makes a good springboard into writing about that for a while. This will be the first post of many, so click the apologetics tag at the bottom to see them all.

 


 

Objector:

There are about 100,000 gods..( actually more) atheist believe none exist.. You believe 999,000 don’t exist.. So you’re nearly as atheistic as i am..

Response:

I will call this argument the “Monotheism is almost Atheism” argument, and I think I remember Christopher Hitchens first saying it.

The numbers in the above statement are woefully incoherent unless you change the second number to be 99,999, after which it makes sense. The claim is that there are zillions of proposed gods throughout human history, and Christians reject nearly all of them on the grounds that there is no evidence, there were merely folklore, they served as a usual coping mechanism for the death of relatives in that society, etc.

Yet, says the objector, those are exactly the criticisms lobbed against the Christian God all the time. So, on what grounds does the Christian reject other gods without rejecting their own? This also bends the perspective, so that instead of saying “Christians believe in one more god than atheists” we are left with “atheists believe in one fewer god than Christians.”

The rephrasing has rhetorical power because it puts Christians into the middle position and simultaneously implies that no middle positions in this scenario are rational. But is that claim true? I have three replies:

  1. There is a lurking false dichotomy here: either believe in no gods and be an atheist, OR, believe in every god that humans have ever believed in. It is feasible that 20,000 gods could exist and yet humans have made up another million. It is feasible that every god proposed does actually exist and humans have never made another up. It is possible that 1 god exists and humans just have varied ways of articulating their experiences with it. All of these positions are feasible and distinct.
  2. Remember that God, in Christianity, is the only being in the category called “things that are divine.” The entire debate over theism is whether that is a legitimate category or not — not, as this objection implies, how we fill that category. Here is another way to say it: the debate is between Naturalism on the one hand, and Naturalism Plus on the other hand. Do things outside the physical observable world exist? By understanding the debate in this way, we see that the real gulf is between atheism and theism, not between monotheism and polytheism. The defeat of atheism (and thus all atheists believing in one more god) would be far more significant than all monotheists becoming bi-theists (and thus believing in one more god) because the real categorical hurdle is between (a)theism.
  3. Consider the way that Anselm and Aristotle conceived of God: he is that than which nothing greater can be conceived; he is the unmoved-first-mover. When we define God as equal to something which is logically necessary, rather than just a humanoid floating around somewhere, it becomes easier to see that the Christian God is more like All The Gods At Once of the other polytheistic religious, a sort of Divinity Itself. This is what makes monotheism distinct from polytheism: not just that they believe in less gods, but that the one god remaining is given Infinity for all his characteristics. Atheism is therefore does not just lose the last divine humanoid being, but loses Divinity itself and becomes naturalism.

So then, this objection’s rhetorical punch masks a deeper misunderstanding about the Christian idea of God’s being. Fix that mistake and the objection loses both its shock effect and its validity.