On fear and Christian faithfulness

While helping a friend prepare for one of their exams last week, I found myself getting rather frustrated with the portrayal of views the lecturer clearly disagreed with. Their understanding of other views seemed rather shallow, and their criticisms were stock-standard and fairly superficial. It seemed as if they had not really grappled with what was really going on in the subject. They were just on their way to a presentation of an accepted evangelical view, and they chose the path of least resistance.

As I read a bit more, I was driven to thinking about this year, and some of the issues I’ve become aware of. I was reminded of how massive these issues are, and how terrifyingly complicated. Sure, there are guys who take the easy way out and bury their heads in the sand by either denying issues or superficially dismissing them. But this is just cowardice, and is often seen to be so! [To be fair, this is not what the lecturer usually does – he was teaching a class outside of his area of expertise.]

And to make matters worse, now that I’ve seen how morally reprehensible this easy path is, there is no going back. I am only left with a much harder path before me. And, as I turn my eyes toward it, I’m petrified. If I want to walk that path I have to recognise that there are really (REALLY) difficult questions that everyone is bashing their heads against – even the people who believe the Bible is the Word of God. And I’ve got to face those questions, and try to understand the real issues involved. And look to Scripture, wrestling with the relevant texts. And find various answers, taking into account both the strengths and penetrating criticisms of each view. And, then, before the face of God, I’ve got to take steps forward. I’ve got to develop convictions in this world. Not the world of my forefathers.

It is easy to be patriotic about a world which has passed, for we are the offspring of that world, and we have been reared by its heroes. But those lands which we nostalgically look to held out no security for our heroes. To them, they were entering uncharted territory. They carved the paths for us because they faced the challenges of their day under God. They allowed God to shape, challenge and wrestle with them through his Word.

I ask that God would allow me to be a person of like character. And I thank him for the brave, thoughtful evangelicals whom he has raised up in my day; men of courage, who I can look up to.

The Trinity: Unity, Community & Equality

One of the most striking truths about the Christian God is that in him there is both unity and community. The formula we use is “one God, three persons, co-equal and co-eternal”. In other words, there is one God and yet; Father, Son and Spirit are distinct from one another but equally and eternally God. This means that within the Godhead there is perfect union because Father, Son and Spirit are perfectly united as one God but there is also perfect communion because Father, Son and Spirit are also distinct from one another and perfectly equal in terms of deity. It is a mind bending reality. Augustine, the great church father, once said of the Trinity, “Spend your life trying to understand it, and you will lose your mind; but deny it and you will lose your soul.”

Rightly, we want to understand our God to the best of our ability but popular attempts to simplify this difficult doctrine often amount to over-simplifications. We simplify the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of its depth. When we lose equality, unity or community in the trinity, we have lost the grand significance of it. For this reason, we want to be nuanced and incisive. There are essentially three trinitarian heresies into which people fall and, in order to avoid them, we must understand them. It is to these we will now turn our attention.

Modalism

Frequently the Trinity is likened to water; a single element which appears as solid, liquid and gas – one substance, three modes. Another popular image is that of a man who is simultaneously father, son and husband; one man, three roles. Both of these images are fundamentally flawed, their flaw has been known in church history as “Modalism” (one God who appears in different modes). The problem of Modalism is that the plurality is artificial. A water molecule can never be solid, liquid and gas simultaneously and similarly a man who is father, son and husband does not have communion because he is only one man. The Christian God has community within himself and so does not need creation for communion. If God were as these analogies imagine him, he would need us to love and be loved. As it is though, active love is innate to God. God’s love is not merely something he can comprehend or create, it is integral to who he is. This is because he exists in community as a Trinity. What’s more, relationships on earth exist as echoes of the perfect community in the Godhead and Christian relationships here are being sanctified to be like the relationships of the Trinity; not absorbed into a singularity as Eastern mysticism imagines. The Trinity promises relationships that maintain distinction of persons while bringing them into intimate community.

Tritheism

Through church history, not many people who have claimed to be Christian have argued that there are three gods simply because biblical evidence is so strongly contrary to this idea. Often though, in trying to avoid Modalism, we fall into Tritheism (the idea that there are three gods). This idea is tied to many attempts to describe the Trinity analogously; a three leaf clover, the parts of an egg or sections of a banana fail to teach the unity of God. Each part is only one third of the whole substance but the Father is not a third God who, together with the other two thirds (Son and Spirit), makes up one God. This idea is not one God but three gods a third of the size. The significance of viewing the Trinity in this way is that the intimacy of relationships is lost. On earth we are entirely distinct, marriage demonstrates the closest relationship we can know but even within marriage partners don’t have perfect union and aren’t perfectly known by one another. In contrast to this, the promise of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that the sanctification of Christian relationships will bring about perfect union and knowledge of one another which is why even the relationship of marriage will be surpassed in heaven. Tritheism undermines the unity to which the Trinity teaches Christians can look as they long to enjoy intimacy knowing and being known by one another.

Subordinationism

It is very tempting to imagine the Father as the supreme God who commands his subordinates; Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Trinity is described as a business run by a CEO (the Father) who is assisted by a director and a manager (the Son and the Spirit). Here we undermine the equality of each member of the Trinity and imply that the Father is greater or more God than the Son or the Spirit, this has been termed “Subordinationism”. As in Modalism and Tritheism, losing equality within the Godhead has significant bearing on relationships. The feminist movement comes loaded with unhelpful baggage but is built on one sound truth: women and men are equal. This truth is rooted in the equality within the Trinity; the Son submits to the Father freely and though equal with him, obeys the Father. This relationship is not reciprocal; the Father does not obey the Son yet, there is mutual glorification as the Son glorifies the Father and the Father the Son. This is to describe only one relationship in the Godhead but the same is true with the Holy Spirit. Equality and submission within the Trinity shows us what relationships on earth should look like and gives hope for redeemed relationships in eternity. Subordination in the Trinity offers no rebuke to chauvinism but equality within the Trinity protects every individual as equal without undermining the qualities of submission and headship.

Conclusion

We began by noting the fact that perfect communion is exhibited in the very nature of God and outlining three fundamental truths about the Trinity. Namely, the three members – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are (1) in perfect unity, (2) perfectly distinct and (3) co-equal and co-eternal. We then looked at three basic heresies through church history which have denied each of these truths and saw their impact on relationships within the Trinity. We extended these implications to relationships on earth to see the significance of each heresy.

Of course, the Trinity should be believed because it is taught by the Bible but hopefully this brief discourse has given ample evidence in support of the necessity of the Trinity to human relationships. This provides Christians with unique insight into relationships in the world as well as cause to hold firmly to the Christian doctrine of a Triune God.

Fools and Firebrands (The Ethics of Deceit in Gameplay)

Like a madman who throws firebrands is the man who deceives and says, ‘Just kidding!’
(Prov. 26:18-19)

Introduction
From lying in a game of Survivor in front of millions of viewers in order to win the million dollars, to a dummy pass in rugby for a clear run to the try line: a great deal of gameplay involves deceit to some degree. The question raised is, how much of this is innocent fun and how much is sinful?

We cannot take the question lightly, Proverbs 26:18-19 reads, “Like a madman who throws firebrands is the man who deceives and says, ‘Just kidding!’”. The Bible has no qualms about saying that “lying lips are an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 12:22) and lest we have the idea that the Old Testament is the condemnatory one, “all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur” (Rev. 21:8) sits far within the New Testament. Of course, we must beware of the Pharisaical avoidance of harmless fun for the sake of what is essentially legalism. The question remains though: when we play a game of Mafia at a church social, are we just Christians having a good time or are we fools with firebrands?

Purpose
This essay will construct a framework of three evaluative questions which will provide guidelines by which we can evaluate deception situations arising in games. In my original work, I applied these questions to various situations and if the present reader is interested, comments are welcome but as this is already too long, they have been removed. The cases I originally examined were extreme and certainly not every game will involve such cases but, as Thielicke (1968:460) points out, “only against this background of the borderline cases do phenomena come to light which are generally concealed by the more normal cases”.

Due to the complexity and nuance associated with trying to define terms accurately (especially when with a view to using them as ethical standards1), this essay will not attempt to define “lying”. The subject involves questions of intent, knowledge, method as well as means of communication all of which weigh in to create a complex subject. We can, however, agree broadly that deception occurs in gameplay. Therefore, rather than subjecting a scenario to a cumbersome definition that attempts to take every iteration into account, it would be more fruitful to develop a framework in which to think about deception in gameplay. We therefore turn to three questions by which we will evaluate deceit in games.

Three Evaluative Questions
        1. Behaviour Tolerance and Manipulation:
In Graham Houston’s (1998:54) book on morality in the virtual world, he raises the concern that exposure to the virtual world can cause, “thresholds of acceptable thought or behaviour to be shifted by such experience, so that actions which were repugnant become less so”. In other words, Houston is pointing out a twofold danger of virtual reality: that behaviour which may be intolerant in reality becomes increasingly acceptable after exposure in virtual reality. It is twofold because it leads to both tolerance of deviant behaviour in others, and can also be manipulation towards that behaviour in oneself.

The objection is that the exposure to “Game World” environments deadens our normal reactions to behaviour that would, outside of Game World be unacceptable. A Game World like Mafia or Survivor encourages or even requires players to do things that they would not normally do and teaches them to do these things effectively against the natural inclination to the contrary. It is a combination of the vulnerability of players to this manipulation and the duration of their exposure that poses the real problem. Just as movies receive age restrictions based on their content which has the potential to psychologically affect its audience, Game Worlds have the potential to change the way players think about and react in different situations.

Ultimately, wisdom will play the biggest role in determining whether prolonged exposure to a particular game is giving rise to a genuine problem. It is important, however, to bear this in mind and to consider the vulnerability of the players engaged in the game.

        2. Transsubjective Reality:
Perhaps a more significant point is how Game World ethics relates to “Real World” ethics. Thielicke considers the way reality confronts people in their lives through, for example, work, politics or economics. Ethical problems arise, according to Thielicke (1968:459), “out of our confrontation with reality”. This reality is not the transcendent kind of reality in which we all find ourselves, but the micro-realities of work or home or the pub where demands on our behaviour or manner differ from the transcendent demands of true reality, or “Real World”. “The scope of ethics is thus illegitimately reduced if it is limited only to the sphere of disposition and does not also embrace the problem of that transsubjective reality into which man is thrust and by which the free play of his action is restricted” (Thielicke, 1968:459). Thielicke is saying, for our purposes, that Game World is not outside of reality; Game World cannot escape the jurisdiction of the Real World.

Does this mean that Real World rules out the possibility of Game World? Surely not, it would be difficult to make a case that Christians cannot play games simply because games have their own sets of rules2. In addition, Thielicke’s point is that we all engage in micro-realities with their own sets of rules all the time. Each reality has differing demands on our interaction. For example, Thielicke (1968:545) offers, “Whenever I try to observe the canons of common etiquette I find myself uttering a constant stream of untruths.” His examples culminate in his explanation, “I often say “Goodbye,” a shortened form of “God be with you,” when what I really mean is “Go to the devil”” (Thielicke, 1968:545).

Sometimes Transcedent Reality collides with Subjective Reality. The criticism of “Transsubjective Reality” is, simply put, that some aspects of games are not confined to Game World and so Real World penetrates Game World in some respects. For example, a game in which players are randomly picked to be executed (in actuality), is not merely a game. An execution results in the death of someone in Real World, not merely in Game World: an unacceptable outcome. For this reason, Real World ethics preclude such Game World activity. Transsubjective Reality is saying that the reality in which we live – objective (transcendent) reality (without going down the rabbit hole of what that means) – transcends the subjective realities of game worlds: it is a “Transsubjective Reality”.

In the micro-reality of a game of Mafia, players understand that any other player could be their enemy and so they are all willing to deceive each other3. The evaluation of Transsubjective Reality asks whether the deceit is confined to Game World. A dummy pass in Rugby is clearly a strategic manoeuvre, misdirecting the opponent as a part of Game World. Similarly, we would be hard pressed to find fault in poker bluff since it is a part of Game World. We should note that both these scenarios could, potentially, have significant Real World consequences beyond merely victory or defeat: for instance, substantial financial rewards are associated with both games. The deceit, however, is confined to Game World. In a game of Truth or Dare, however, a deceit may well pervade Real World and so be unethical. To make a judgement on Mafia would be pre-emptive but this will become clearer when applied in the following section. What is important to see is that sometimes, aspects of a game escape Game World and reside, at least partially, in Real World.

        3. Love the Final Ethic:
Having just enumerated commandments in Romans 13 and reaching verse 10, Paul suddenly explains, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour”. “Therefore,” Paul concludes, “love is the fulfilling of the law”. While the question of behaviour tolerance and manipulation investigated the effects of the game on the individual player, we have not yet considered the other players. With a topic that can be the source of great controversy we need to carefully consider the effect of deceit in gameplay on Real World relationships of the players. This is not merely an extension of the previous point: even if worlds are shown not to interact at all and the point is nullified, the biblical imperative must pervade our every thought, word and deed.

To begin with, the biblical imperative demands that we take into account the rule of conscience. Paul tells us that our conscience “bears witness, and [our] conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse [us]” (Rom. 2:15). Therefore, he requires that we submit to the government “for the sake of conscience” (Rom. 13:5). This means that if our conscience decries our deceit, we should not be involved in the game since, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”4.

The ethic of love, though, is not about our own consciences, it is about that of others: love bids us consider the weaker brother. Paul’s discourse in Romans 13 is aptly summarised in verse 21, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble”. I cannot do better than to quote Paul at length, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat [or your deception, though in Game World], you are no longer walking in love” (Rom. 13:14-15) so Paul’s exhortation applies here also, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 13:19).

Finally, Paul says something interesting in Romans 12:17. He has been exhorting the church to use their gifts and in the vein of “living in harmony”, loving “genuinely” and “with brotherly affection” we find Paul urge us not simply to do what is good but to “give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all” (Rom. 12:17). This is interesting because it means that we need to think twice about doing something that brothers and sisters in Christ would frown upon. It is a high calling, especially considering we have weaker siblings but it is the calling to which he calls us.

All this does not mean that no one can play poker any more because it causes one Christian brother or sister to stumble. It does mean that in an effort to love one another and build one another up, we should be willing to forego a game of poker when that brother or sister is in our company. In addition should our own consciences be disturbed by whatever we are doing, we should excuse ourselves from the game without casting judgement on the remaining players.

Some Further Considerations
If I were to write this paper a second time there are some thing I would change. The first is that I now feel that the idea of Transubjective Reality is the only question that is being asked and so it would umbrella the other two questions and undergird the entire project. I also have not dealt with any real criticism (originally I had written something which did not truly deal with potential arguments against this take) and I am considering taking potential criticism more seriously (it is, therefore, welcome below). Some particularly relevant criticisms are: (1) on what basis may we say that game world can ethically exist? (2) rats, this is what happens when you don’t write things down. Of course, this paragraph is simply an appendage for the sake of a blog and so I’m not going to belabour it any further.

Conclusion
When it comes to deceit in gameplay, unless we are to take a hardline and condemn it all, it must be taken on a case by case basis. We have looked at three aspects germane to the consideration of deceit in gameplay and have seen how these considerations help us to determine the morality of deceitful actions in different circumstances. Hopefully now, we can participate in games as mature Christians, assured of our faith and never being found fools with firebrands.

Appendices
I have included a pdf of my appendices: Appendix A explains the games in case anyone is unfamiliar with them. Appendix B lists some interesting case studies.
You can download it by clicking here.

Footnotes

  1. Initially this approach was considered but was ruled out because it is difficult for a definition to account for the nuances of reality. For such a discussion, see Don Fallis’ Lying and Deception (2010:1-22).  return
  2. Although, a strong case could be made against specific games whose rules are unethical. A game of Russian Roulette could be argued to be unethical because part of its rules requires killing someone in Real World. With deceit in gameplay it is harder to nail down. The trouble is that a game cannot have true deception unless deception is not required (otherwise trust which can be betrayed could never be built) and so if deception is not a requisite of the game, how can we argue that the game is unethical? At most we can say that the players are unethical.  return
  3. I have even been witness to citizens deceiving citizens in an attempt to “assist” the citizens who are deceived in identifying Mafia. Ironically, the only real exception to this is that the Mafia don’t deceive one another.  return
  4. Paul is arguing for Christian liberty but not at the expense of conscience specifically in the context of dietary restrictions, he writes that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith” and concludes explaining that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).  return

Bibliography

  1. FALLIS, D. 2010. Lying and deception. Philosophers’ imprint, 10(11):1-22, Nov.
  2. HOUSTON, G. 1998. Virtual morality: Christian ethics in a computer age. Leicester : Apollos.
  3. MARSHALL, J. 2007. “Survivor” ethics: the saga of Dreamz and Yau-Man. [Web:] http://www.ethicsscoreboard.com/list/survivor.html [Date of access: 14 May 2011].
  4. STASSEN, G. H. & GUSHEE, D. P. 2003. Kingdom ethics: following Jesus in contemporary context. Downers Grove, IL : IVP.
  5. THIELICKE, H. 1968. Theolgical ethics: volume 1: foundations. London : Adam & Charles Black.
  6. YIN, T. 2007. “Survivor: Fiji”: ethics and lying in games. [Web:] http://yin.typepad.com/the_yin_blog/2007/05/survivor_fiji_e.html [Date of access: 14 May 2011].

The Spirit, Marriage and Adoption

To many of us “Spirit” is a colourless and vague word. The Holy Spirit is a faceless enigma beyond the grasp of our understanding. Yet, He – not “it” – is the One responsible for applying salvation to believers.

In the last two days I have heard of an engagement and an imminent adoption. It struck me as I have been studying for an exam on the Holy Spirit and salvation that in spite of the fact that often doctrine courses can leave students in the clouds (or on occassion, at sea), marriage and adoption are exquisite shadows of a reality that the Spirit actualises.

I am talking about Union with Christ. Merely typing it, I feel like Alladin’s genie dreaming of freedom, “Union with Christ, such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures of all the world” and it is ours. Marriage involves the most intimate relationship we can know this side of eternity and it merely depicts the relationship we have with Father in Christ through the Spirit. Adoption implies orphans without home or hope graciously lifted from despair. So it is with us who are adopted, who find belonging in the arms of a loving Father, heirs with Christ through the Spirit.

I had to pause and contemplate the beauty of marriage and adoption. They are two realities that will become infinitely resplendent to us when we realise that the Holy Spirit – who we have relegated to the crazy outskirts of evangelicalism where tongues and healings occur – has made them real in our lives with reference to the Triune God.

Here is my heart Lord, come Lord Jesus!

Theology in History

I wanted to make the title, “God is History” but that doesn’t work practically as well as “Theology is History”. Of course, “Theology is History” doesn’t have quite the same provocative effect. So instead, I went with something that actually describes the content of this post. I’ve been thinking recently about the relationship between history and theology. This, particularly with reference to Old Testament narrative; how we are to regard the literary nature of narrative arguing theology to actual history. I’ve come up with three points because Bible college has had an effect on the structure of my thinking. This is my thinking thus far:

1. The Authorial Attestation

Supposing we reject the historicity of old testament narrative. The authors of the stories we find are simply fable and lore, told to argue for a certain type of god. The Exodus, for example, becomes a tale of a god who redeems his people. At first glance, it seems that not much is lost: we may still highly value the literary character of the Old Testament narrative and the narrators’ arguments remain within our grasp.
The problem with this view is that we are left with a Bible of stories. The examples to which the authors point in order to prove their affirmations about the character of God have no place in history. What we know of God’s character resides in the mind of the authors of fiction. The Exodus does not prove God’s love for His people and demonstrate the truth that God redeems His people, it can only claim that this is God’s character.
Theology embedded in history means that history is an argument for God and His character, it is the place to which we can look for evidence and examples of the way God deals with His people and ultimately, the way He deals with sin.

2. The Authorial Activity

We must realise, further, that if theology is not rooted in history, we are left with a god who does not act in history. It is a different god who does not exist immanently, in time, who does not act to bring about his purposes and whose activity we cannot perceive.
Theology being rooted in history means that we can look at history and see a God who acts. We can discern His sovereignty over events in time: we can see His command of nature as creation comes into being and is ordered, as the sea parts and as His purposes come to be.

3. The Authorial Insertion

Ultimately though, a theology that is not founded on history loses the cornerstone of the Christian faith. An enormous claim, made because theology and history intersect in a spectacular way when the subject of theology becomes an object of history. The Incarnation is the final and ultimate reason that theology and history cannot be torn apart. C. S. Lewis reflects on the fact that a character in Shakespeare’s plays could never meet Shakespeare himself: that is, Lewis muses, unless Shakespeare were to write himself into the script and interact with a character. Of course, the character could never know Shakespeare fully but it would be a revelation of the author to players in the story. This is what inspired the third point’s title. Ultimately without the author of the stage of history divinely writing himself in, we are left with a hidden god unlike anything in Christianity and, I would argue (though not here), not worth believing.

Theology and history cannot be torn apart without losing Christianity. What does that mean?
It means that we must affirm the historicity of what we find in Scripture.

Rob Bell and the Doctrines of Grace

The New Calvinism is the new fad. It’s easy for me to see why because I would see myself as a part of it. Now I find myself reading Wesley’s hymns and saying, “That one’s great! His Arminianism barely shows…” and am willing to sing it wholeheartedly. I have friends, though, who are still on the dark side, as it were; waving the Arminian flag with vigour.

The Doctrines of Grace are not the battleground of recent days though. Rob Bell has brought live heresy into the fray of doctrinal controversy. Never one to avoid such conflict (quite the opposite, in fact), I picked up the first copy of “Love Wins” (Rob Bell’s book) I’ve seen in South Africa and perused it. To my astonishment (and yet, not really) it seems that the Doctrines of Grace are indeed all pervasive because this is what I read:

If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs?

And aren’t verbs actions?

Accepting, confessing, believing – those are things we do.

Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?

How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart – that it wasn’t, in the end, a religion at all – that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?

Ka-ching! Bell’s question, “Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?” rings eerily true when the Doctrines of Grace are abandoned. The onslaught of questions that follows illustrates the necessity that salvation is not something I can do. Indeed, with Bell (and with some surprise that I’m agreeing with him) I say, “God has already done it through Jesus”.

What is the solution then? Because Bell goes on to argue that everyone is saved in the end; love wins after all…

Again, I agree. This time only in part though. Paul explains, “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16) just as Bell has eloquently shown is necessary. But Paul continues anticipating Bell (Rom 9:21-23), “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honoured use and another for dishonourable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory

So love does win: God’s self-love (which is the height of righteousness in God) wins in the end. He, the potter makes vessels for destruction and for glory. It doesn’t depend on something we do but we will be accountable for everything we do and as Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).