The Wish for Design

This is the second in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The words that follow are his.

Evidence of design for life counters the trend of the Copernican revolution where there is nothing special about this planet, and the Darwinian revolution that says there is nothing special about life. Being designed or planned for, not just some accident, gives an individual worth. Perhaps this is the reason for the disgrace attached to being an illegitimate child—one who is an accident and wasn’t planned. We want to have purpose.

Even though Steven Weinberg’s writings (1992) emphasize a lack of evidence for design, he points out some emotional reasons for wanting to believe in a Designer.

“It would be wonderful to find in the laws of nature a plan prepared by a concerned creator in which human beings played some special role. I find sadness in doubting that we will.” — p.256

 “The lessons of religious experience can be deeply satisfying, in contrast to the abstract and impersonal worldview gained from scientific investigation. Unlike science, religious experience can suggest a meaning for our lives, a part for us to play in a great cosmic drama of sin and redemption, and it holds out to us a promise of some continuation after death. For just these reasons, the lessons of religious experience seem to me indelibly marked with the stamp of wishful thinking.” — p.255

 “… religion did not arise in the minds of men and women who speculated about infinitely prescient first causes but in the heart of those who longed for the continual intervention of an interested God.” — p.248

 “I do not for a minute think that science will ever provide the consolations that have been offered by religion in facing death.” — p.260

 To be continued. . .

Design in the Physical Universe

Increasing attention is being given to the relationship between science and religion. How do these two ways of knowing relate to each other? Does a belief in science, which is grounded in the five human senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), nullify knowledge claimed on the grounds of religion? Is there scientific evidence that the universe was designed and didn’t just happen by chance? A friend of mine, Dr. Ben Clausen, has spoken eloquently to these issues for many years. I thought I would share some of his best work as a guest blog over the next month. If you are at all interested in these issues, I highly recommend his work. I will do some light editing for the sake of my own blog format. Otherwise, the rest of this series are the words of Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The last in this series will include a bibliography of important works in this field.

Several years ago my wife and I were hiking in Utah at Arches National Park. The area was desert, so it wasn’t easy to pick out the trail, but we saw these little piles of rocks. If there had only been a couple piles and the piles contained only a couple rocks, we wouldn’t have particularly noticed or at least would have thought it was just a natural coincidence. However, the piles contained several rocks, stacked on top of each other, and occurred on a line every 100 feet or so. The piles (cairns) appeared to be designed by humans, and we took them to represent trail markers.

This article will describe evidence for what appears to be physical design on Earth, in the universe, and in the basic laws of nature. Some have used the examples of design as arguments for the God of religion as the intelligent designer; others have explained the design naturalistically. Some pros and cons of the arguments will be outlined along with cautions in using the arguments. Design in the universe is a reasonably good argument for an Intelligence behind nature; however, it is important to know the strengths when using the argument as well as some cautions. Each individual has a choice in how they interpret the evidence. As for me, I choose to believe that the God of the Bible is the Intelligent Designer and praise Him for his wisdom.

Everyone recognizes design in nature. The question is how to interpret it: what is its source? what does it mean? The Greeks saw design in nature and used the golden ratio (that we can see in nature’s spirals such as the chambered nautilus) in building the Parthenon (Livio 2003).

The founding fathers of science believed in a God of law and order and expected His creation to obey natural laws, to follow cause and effect relations, and to demonstrate design (Gingerich 1995). A number of these scientists used natural theology to demonstrate how intricately God had designed nature. A series of books was published in the early nineteenth century by William Pickering of London to provide evidence for the existence of God and examples of design by an all-wise Creator. They were titled the “Bridgewater treatises on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation”. William Whewell (1794-1866) wrote on: Astronomy and general physics considered with reference to natural theology. William Paley wrote on: Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. His classic example is, “The watch must have had a maker [who] designed its use, … [and] every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature.”

Today, a small but growing Intelligent Design group of scholars, with William Dembski as a leading proponent, find evidence for God in the design of the universe and in the design of living organisms. This group is providing rigorous criteria for making design inferences and elaborating the advantages of adopting intelligent design as a scientific research program. A number of them met at Biola University for a Mere Creation Conference, and eventually produced the book, Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design (Dembski 1998).

This ability to see design is not restricted to those who are religious. Richard Dawkins (1987, p.1), the famous biologist and opponent of religion, says in The Blind Watchmaker that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Stephen Hawking, the atheist physicist, says in A Brief History of Time that the beginning of the universe was designed for beings like us. In a later book, The Grand Design, he gives options for how this design could happen naturalistically. However, he still says, “Our universe and its laws appear to have a design that is both tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. That is not easily explained, and raises the natural question of why it is that way” (Hawking and Mlodinow 2010).

Options for Unity

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

That leaves two options for attaining unity. One is being proposed by David Newman. He asserts that ordination as generally practiced is a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages. The word “ordination,” after all, is derived from Latin, it is not found in the Greek of the NT. Given that reality, Newman suggests we not ordain anyone and solve the problem in that way. I could live with such a position, but since the Adventist pioneers adopted ordination as a practical necessity rather than a biblical mandate, something like “ordination” is probably needed in the church.
I suggest, therefore, one other option. The simplest approach to honor the Bible and yet preserve unity is to affirm that the Bible does not directly address the question of women’s ordination. It neither mandates the ordination of women to the gospel ministry nor forbids it. Neither party would have to give approval to a theology they disagree with. Let’s just agree that the Bible doesn’t directly address the question and that, therefore, differences of opinion on how to apply the Bible to ordination today are to be expected. When differences like this are the norm, unity requires that decisions about ordination be driven by other evidences than the direct teachings of Scripture. Divisions and unions should be allowed to ordain women or not ordain them, based on the leading of the Spirit and the demands of mission in those territories. Circumstances alter cases.
Some might ask: Won’t such a policy itself destroy the unity of the church? Similar differences in policy did not destroy the unity of the New Testament church. Another question. What will happen if an ordained woman is called to a union that doesn’t ordain women? The same thing that happens now with female church elders. If an ordained female elder moves to a church that doesn’t ordain females as elders, she should not expect to be an elder in that church (for better or for worse). If an ordained female pastor receives an invitation to pastor in a union or division that doesn’t ordain women, she should understand that her ordination will not be recognized there, and respond to the invitation with that in mind. If an unordained female pastor is invited to a region that ordains women, she should not be compelled to accept ordination. While there will be relational challenges in the process, the overall unity of the church need not be destroyed on the basis of such an arrangement. Practical arrangements in one local church need not affect arrangements in another. Circumstances alter cases.
The good news is that this very outcome is a real possibility this coming July. According to the document recommended unanimously by top church leadership and voted overwhelming by the Annual Council, the delegates to the GC session can vote to allow “division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry.” A “yes” vote on this question respects the years of study that have failed to settle the question on the basis of the Bible. A “yes” vote on this question recognizes that the church in many parts of the world already calls women to fill pastoral roles, recognizing the Holy Spirit’s call to them. A “yes” vote on this question acknowledges that the Bible often allows circumstances to alter cases. A “yes” vote on this question allows the mission of the church to flow in each territory, while respecting the differences in the way we read Scripture. As Ellen White herself often said, “Circumstances alter cases.”

Concluded.

Proposed Solutions

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

As TOSC continued, the North American Division of the Adventist Church produced a remarkable document in favor of ordaining women (an even larger document was produced by the Trans-European Division). By way of contrast, divisions of the church opposed to women’s ordination seem to have done little fresh study. The one exception to this is the minority report of the North American Division, which broke some new ground. It suggested that male “headship” was a core element of biblical theology that limited ordination only to men. This was a new theological approach that had never been seen in Adventism before the mid-1980s (Sam Bacchiocchi) or even in Christianity generally before the 1970s. That doesn’t make it wrong by itself, but Adventism historically is rightly skeptical of such radical theological departures. I find it interesting that headship arguments were used against the ministry of Ellen White in the 19th Century. With that in mind, the faculty of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary has concluded that headship theology takes a dangerous turn away from the Adventist understanding of the Bible, and I think they are right.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Instead of one “solution” to the division in the church on women’s ordination, TOSC came up with three. In short, the first proposal denies ordination of women to the gospel ministry and rescinds the ordination of women to positions of local elder. If accepted, this proposal would return the church to the position it was in before 1970. The second proposal affirms that the Bible supports the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, but that it should not be imposed in regions where it would be detrimental to the church’s mission. The third proposal affirms that the Bible exhibits a pattern of male leadership, but that such biblical patterns can be adapted to changing circumstances. Entities of the church that feel mission requires the ordination of women could apply to do so. The second and third proposals allow circumstances to alter cases. But I don’t think any of these three “solutions” would lead the church to unity. We have got to do better than these.
Two possible approaches favored by some seem almost guaranteed to destroy the unity of the church. One would be mandating that ordination to the positions of both pastor and elder be restricted to males only once again. Since the church first moved away from that position in the 1970s, the western world has shifted enormously in favor of full equality and inclusion for women. I remember the 1950s. In the 1950s nearly everyone assumed that some roles should be filled only by men: physician, soldier, lawyer, police officer, truck driver, President of the United States, and airplane pilot, to name only a few. Today women fill virtually all roles in the work place except ministry in some churches. For the Adventist Church to step back to the 1950s after all that would be devastating to the mission of the church in the western world and a few other places. Not only that, in my travels to parts of the world opposed to women’s ordination, I find the younger generation largely open to full inclusion as well, although the leaders of the church in those regions are still reluctant.
A second approach that would destroy the unity of the church would be to mandate the ordination of women worldwide. This would be devastating in many cultures where full inclusion of women is not yet the norm in society. For the church to move ahead in those areas would unnecessarily complicate its ability to share the gospel at this time. The Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia and South America likely fall into this category. It would hurt the mission of the church to force a global vote on women’s ordination either way. I am glad, therefore, that church leadership is not promoting either of these approaches at the upcoming General Conference.
The problem with all three “solutions” is that they presume the Bible is reasonably clear on the subject, one way or the other. Option One finds the Bible so clearly against women’s ordination that it not only takes the field but pillages the opposition. Not a formula for unity. Option Two presumes that the Bible, rightly understood, teaches women’s ordination, but that those who disagree can get permission to continue their traditional practices. Not likely to be accepted in many parts of the world. Option Three presumes that the Bible models male “leadership,” but those who want to ordain women can apply for permission to do so. What all these positions presume is that the Bible speaks to the issue with clarity, and that in the end it agrees with those who read it that way.
Whenever you have dueling positions on a topic, all claiming to be from the Bible, there are only two ways to make sense of the situation. Either one side is perverse (deliberately twisting Scripture to get their way) or the Bible is, in fact, unclear on the subject. I have good friends and many former students on both sides of the women’s ordination debate. I cannot look either side in the eye and say, “You are perverse, you are deliberately manipulating the Bible to get your way.” To do so would be to pass a terrible judgment on people I have enjoyed as colleagues for many years. But if the Bible, in fact, does not address the question, that fact should be the foundation of the church’s position, rather than according victory to one side or the other.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Ordination of Women

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

The hope a few years ago was that the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) would come to a consensus on the meaning of ordination and then on the question of the ordination of women. If after two years of worldwide deliberation TOSC remained divided on the latter, the committee was requested to offer solutions that would preserve the unity of the church in the midst of such division. Here’s what actually happened.
On July 23, 2013, by a vote of 86-8, TOSC adopted a very significant statement on the meaning of ordination. It defined ordination as “the public recognition of those the Lord has called” to church ministry. According to the statement, ordination confers “representative authority” rather than “special qualities” or a role in a “kingly hierarchy.” These are important distinctions. In other words, ordination is the church’s way of saying “this person speaks for us.” It does not convey unique power or place a person in a higher rank than others.
Based on these points, the question became whether or not “the Lord has called” Adventist women to church ministry. Can women represent the church in such roles? The reality is that in many parts of the world women ARE being called to ministry. They ARE serving in such roles. Unless ordination has some magical effect or promotes a kingly hierarchy, hiring a woman to serve in church ministry is simply the church’s modern way of saying “she speaks for us.”  Women serving in ministry at the call of the church are as good as ordained now.
As noted above, there is one aspect of this issue that I think doesn’t gets enough attention. There is one thing we should all be able to agree on. The Bible NEVER addresses the question of women’s ordination. No Bible writer ever asks whether women should be ordained. The issue simply does not arise in the text. That means that arguing the case for or against women’s ordination seeks expanded meanings from Scriptures addressing other issues. As a result, it is rare for anyone to change their mind on the subject based on Bible study alone. And if the Bible does not directly address a subject, then the conclusion will be driven more by culture, tradition and God’s providence (the sense of God’s working in a particular context) than by Scripture.
An example of such a process in the Bible is found in Acts chapters 8-15. Before Acts 8 Christians assumed that the church was a subset of Judaism and would include only Jews. But then Philip met the Ethiopian, Peter met Cornelius, and Peter had a dream. By Acts 15 it became apparent that the Spirit was working with Gentiles and bringing them into the church without circumcision and without making them Jews first. The church then took a fresh look at Scripture and saw possibilities there that they had missed before (see Acts 15:13-19). The mission of the church and the guidance of the Spirit, rather than the reading of Scripture, demanded the inclusion of the Gentiles. You didn’t have to become Jewish in order to become Christian. Through these experiences the church learned to read the Bible differently for a new situation. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Dealing with “biblical” Claims

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Both the Bible and the lessons of Adventist history (see the previous blogs in this series) demonstrate that circumstances alter cases. But what does all that have to do with the ordination of women? Is Women’s Ordination also an issue where circumstances alter cases? Before I get into recent events and the upcoming General Conference session, let me share an important distinction in biblical interpretation. When we say that a particular teaching is “biblical,” the evidence for such an assertion comes at two different levels. I draw a distinction between teachings that are exegetically compelling and teachings that are exegetically defensible. Some biblical doctrines are exegetically compelling. In other words, the Bible raises the very question we are concerned with and answers it with compelling clarity. Everyone sees clearly what the Bible is saying and either follows it or chooses not to.

On the other hand, many so-called “biblical” teachings are defensible from the Bible, but not totally compelling on the basis of the Bible alone. Such teachings do not contradict the Bible but require reasoning, tradition, experience, history, science or other sources in order to be convincing. For example, the Bible itself never addresses the issue of smoking. And no text in the Bible tells us that spinach is good for us and tobacco is bad. So while Christians may ban smoking on the basis of biblical principles, it requires non-biblical (mostly scientific and experiential) evidence to make the case.

When it comes to women’s ordination, there is no text that raises the question or addresses the issue directly. All biblical arguments are derived from texts addressing other issues. So any argument from the Bible on women’s ordination needs to be exegetically defensible (not contradict the Bible), but can never be exegetically compelling in the sense that all will be compelled to understand and accept the conclusion from the Bible alone.

The interesting thing about the observations in the previous blogs is that even exegetically compelling texts may not always apply in a new situation. The practice of circumcision in the church was based on clear, compelling texts. The rules on meat slaughter for Israelites in the desert were based on a clear, compelling passage. The ruling in Acts 15 was direct and clear, so was Paul’s counsel regarding civil authorities in Romans 13. But even when the texts are compelling and clear, circumstances can alter cases. How much more should the principle apply when neither side’s exegesis compels the other?

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood or misquoted on this point. I am NOT saying that anything goes. I am not advocating situational ethics, I am not advocating that all values and principles can be altered at will. But I AM pointing out that within Scripture, there are clear examples of circumstances altering cases. We cannot take the most straightforward reading and assume that it applies universally in all circumstances. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 10:15, when it comes to matters of church policy, we need to consider time and place and use common sense.

To be continued. . .

Some Illustrations from Adventist History

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

In the early 1800s William Miller’s attention was drawn to Revelation 10. Coming toward the close of the seven trumpets, this chapter had something to say about the period of earth’s history just before the Second Coming. That meant to Miller that Revelation 10 must be speaking specifically to the time in which he lived. Miller rightly saw that Revelation 10 built on Daniel 12 (Rev 10:5-6, cf. Dan 12:7). A sealed book (Dan 12:4) was now open (Rev 10:1-2). What was sealed in Daniel were particularly the prophetic time periods, the 2300-day prophecy (Dan 8:13-14, 26) and the 1260-day prophecy (Dan 12:7, 9). Since those time periods, in his calculation, ended in 1798 and 1843-44 respectively, Miller came to believe that Revelation 10 was talking about the very time period in which he was living, the last 45 years before Jesus’ return (1798-1843). If the cleansing of the sanctuary (Dan 8:14) was Jesus’ Second Coming, the world was about to come to an end. The message was electrifying, the biblical arguments were compelling, and a great movement arose, seeking to prepare the world for the soon return of Jesus.

Everything was in place except the coming of Jesus itself. But it never happened. When Jesus did not come on October 22, 1844, people began to notice that the open scroll in the prophecy would be sweet in the mouth but bitter in the belly (Rev 10:8-10). In other words, there were clear indications in the text that God knew about The Great Disappointment before it happened, but they had completely missed that part of the prophecy. The purpose of Revelation 10 was not to provide the date of the Second Coming, but to galvanize the final proclamation of the gospel to the world (Rev 10:11; 14:6-7). Adventist understanding of Revelation 10 had been perfectly clear and compelling before 1844. But after October 22, 1844, the Adventist pioneers were forced to re-read and re-think what the Bible had to say about their era. Circumstances alter cases.

The same thing can happen with the writings of Ellen White. According to records at the 1919 Bible Conference, the General Conference president was holding some meetings in the city we know as Oslo. Attendees had come from all over Scandinavia. One of the attendees was an extremely thin and pale colporteur based in Hammerfest, at the time the northernmost city in the world. Hammerfest back then rarely received any canned goods, and fruits and vegetables were extremely expensive when they arrived at all. A man on a missionary salary could not afford either. So when A. G. Daniells (the GC President at the time) asked the unhealthy-looking man what he ate back home the man replied, “Mostly the north wind.”

The primary food options in Hammerfest at the time were reindeer meat, fish, potatoes and starchy foods like corn meal mush. The colporteur was an ardent follower of Ellen White’s writings, so he refused to eat any animal products. But the result of his “faithfulness” was the opposite of good health. Daniells advised the man to center his diet on reindeer meat when he got back home. But on the long boat ride back to the United States, the GC President began to feel a bit guilty about his advice and how that might play around the world. So when he returned to the United States he made the long trek across the continent to visit Elmshaven and get Ellen White’s reaction.

According to Daniells, Ellen White’s response was, “Why don’t people use common sense? Don’t they know that we are to be governed by the places we are located?” After further conversation, she was concerned enough to wonder if her Testimonies should not be recalled and “fixed up,” in other words, written in a way that principles given to particular people in particular circumstances could not be absolutized in an unhealthy way. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible, Part 3

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Moving to the New Testament, we have another example of how circumstances alter cases. The council of Acts 15 reached a decision that Gentiles should not be troubled by practices like circumcision (Acts 15:19) but should refrain from eating food that had been “ceremonially polluted” (alisgêma) in relation to idols (15:20). This was one of several regulations that would allow Gentiles and Jews to more comfortably fellowship together. In disseminating the decision of the council, the leaders clarified their meaning with a different word; Gentiles should not eat food “sacrificed” or offered (eidôlothutos) to idols (Acts 15:29).

Paul addresses the same issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but does so in greater depth (he mentions food offered to idols [eidôlothutos] six times: 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19, 28). He asserts that “no idol in the world really exists” (1 Cor 8:4, NRSV), “an idol is nothing” (KJV), therefore offering or sacrificing food to idols does not in any way change the food or affect our relation to it (1 Cor 8:8). So eating such food is not an issue for intelligent Christians, in spite of the decree of the council in Acts 15. But not all Christians have this knowledge (8:7), so one must be sensitive to the impact one’s own practice will have on the faith experience of another (8:9-13).

In addition, while idols have no real existence, temple practices should generally be avoided by Christians as they may involve the presence of demons, which would make the temple a dangerous place to go (10:16-21). On the other hand, if an unbeliever invites you to dinner (10:27) or you are shopping in the marketplace (10:25), don’t worry about whether the food was offered to idols or not, go ahead and eat without asking questions. But if someone, likely a fellow believer, objects that the food was offered to an idol, then don’t eat it (10:28), not because an idol is anything but because of the conscience of the one who said it (10:29-33). You don’t want to damage that person’s conscience or walk with God (8:10-13). In matters like this, council or no council, it is important to use common sense (10:15). Paul was not opposed to the earlier action of the council, but was using common sense to clarify the council’s intention in various situations. In a different place, the policy should be applied differently. Circumstances alter cases.

In Romans (written in the 50s AD) Paul speaks very positively about the role of civil government. Christians should be subject to civil authority because such authorities have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1). To resist such authorities is to resist the same God who appointed them (13:2). In fact the civil authorities act as servants (diakonos or “deacons”) of God to keep order in society (13:3-4, 6). Christians should treat civil authorities with honor and respect, for the sake of conscience (13:5, 7).

But forty years later, the situation seems to have changed. In the book of Revelation (probably written in the 90s AD), civil authorities enmeshed with false religion can be described as vicious, persecuting beasts (Rev 13:1-2, 11) who are hurting and will hurt God’s people (Rev 13:7, 10, 15-17). They also blaspheme God Himself (13:1, 6). Since Romans was probably written from Corinth, in the same general region of the Empire as Asia Minor, we see a very different attitude toward civil authority in the same region, but at a different time (forty years later). Different times and different places call for a fresh application of biblical principles. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible, Part 2

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

In Daniel 2 and 7 we see God Himself making the kind of adjustment Israelites and the Church had to make in the previous blog. In both chapters a human being sees a vision of the future that involves four kingdoms followed by the kingdom of God. But to the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar this vision comes in the form of an idol (tselêm– Dan 2:31-33; 3:1-6). This is startling for God to do, but it makes perfect sense for communication. After all, for Nebuchadnezzar the great kingdoms of the world were beautiful, shining examples of the gods they worshiped. But when God gives essentially the same vision to Daniel, the Hebrew prophet, He shapes the vision as a replay of the story of creation. There is a stormy sea (Dan 7:2), then animals appear (7:3-8), then comes a son of man who is given dominion over the animals (7:13-14). Just as Adam had dominion over the animals at creation (Gen 1:26-28; 2:20), God’s second Adam, the son of man, would have dominion over the kingdoms that were hurting Daniel’s people. Circumstances alter cases. What is unique here is that God himself is the one doing the contextualizing. You can’t blame the change on the human author of the text.

These passages call to mind parallel principles to that expressed in the proverb “circumstances alter cases.” One of these is “God meets people where they are” and the other is “there is more than one right way to think.” When you think of the four gospels, it would be foolish to ask the question, “Which gospel writer was right, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” They were all inspired and they were all right. Yet each gives a unique and different picture of Jesus. There is more than one right way to think. Is Jesus divine or is He human? Wrong question! There is more than one right way to think about Jesus. That doesn’t mean that all ways of thinking are right. But truth must not be limited to one form of expression. Circumstances do not alter all cases, but absolutizing revelation in many circumstances undermines the very principle that is driving the text.

To be continued. . .

Circumstances and the Bible

Continuing a series on the Bible, ordination, and the upcoming General Conference in San Antonio.

Let me share some examples of how the principle of “circumstances alter cases” can be seen in the Bible. In Genesis 17 God offers Abraham an “everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). That sounds pretty permanent. This everlasting covenant would be for “you and your offspring after you throughout their generations” (Gen 17:9, ESV). That’s sounds pretty permanent too. And the sign of that everlasting covenant was the circumcision of all males among the descendants of Abraham.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the early church adopted circumcision as a mandatory rule for all followers of Jesus. In fact, some of the most passionate believers among them confidently asserted, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1, ESV) But at the council described in Acts 15 church leaders discovered that the Holy Spirit was calling uncircumcised Gentiles like Cornelius. What to do? They re-thought Genesis 17 and drew the conclusion that circumcision was specifically for the physical descendants of Abraham, but was not required for the Gentiles (Acts 15:19). Later on, when Timothy accepted Jesus, Paul required him to be circumcised because the Jews in that area knew his father was a Greek, but he had a Jewish mother (Acts 16:3). The full Gentile Titus, on the other hand, was not circumcised (Gal 2:3). Circumstances alter cases.

The book of Leviticus offered rules and regulations for Israel’s experience of wandering in the desert and living in tents around the tabernacle. Leviticus 17 addressed the issue of private slaughtering of animals for food and sometimes even as sacrifices. Some of this slaughtering was happening around people’s tents, others did it outside the camp. Leviticus asserts that under no circumstances was such slaughtering to occur without bringing the meat to the door of the tabernacle to be inspected by a priest (Lev 17:4). Even better would be to let the priests handle the whole process there (17:5-6). A crucial factor in this regulation was the proper draining of blood so it would not be eaten (17:10-11). This was to be “a statute forever for them throughout their generations” (17:7). This is a reasonably clear text. And it sounds pretty universal and permanent.

A generation later, however, the circumstances were about to change. Moses created a “second law” (Deuteronomy) which would apply to Israel’s settled existence in the promised land (Deut 12:1). In Deuteronomy 12 he instructs them to continue bringing animals for sacrifice to designated locations such as the sanctuary (Deut 12:13-14). But the slaughter of meat for food was no longer part of the regulation. They could freely do that slaughtering where they lived as long as they did it the right way, respecting the blood regulations (12:15-16). You see, with sacrifices at the sanctuary, the animals could be transported live, so the distance between home and sanctuary is not critical. But with meat slaughter, freshness begins to decline the moment you do it and having to transport meat as much as 50 miles back home before people could eat it made no sense. Circumstances alter cases.

To be continued. . .