Jesus taught significant theological truth via stories and parables. He took what people traditionally might have considered ineffable and made it almost common and understandable. He spoke, taught and thought in such a way that the common Israelite could grasp the truth he intended to communicate. While it is quite true Jesus also taught propositional truth, he often employed common experiences as a means of communicating truth.
Can’t the same be done today? I was formally trained in a tradition that prides itself on the consistency of its’ propositional truth. My tradition gives off the impression that we “have it all figured out.” And, to be quite honest, of the theological traditions I’ve studied, I’d have to say the Reformed tradition is as consistent, logical and systematic as I’ve encountered. But, therein lies the problem I want to think through briefly.
Years after being extremely well trained at my graduate institution, I have begun a long and painful process of inspecting my theological fortress. And, not surprising, from the outside there is a foreboding sense the walls and structure of Reformed thought are impenetrable. Upon closer inspection, however, there are problems. There are cracks in the foundation. A fortress that is impressive from the outside turns out to be rather flawed when you get into the inner sanctum. If you only walk around the outside and visit the outer rooms, you will remain awed at the architecture, maybe even becoming prideful about the indestructibility of your new Reformed home. But, behind those locked doors, secret passage ways and lower levels, the issues become unavoidable. Our impressive collection of Reformed systematic answers and biblical proof texts seems rather daunting. Our emphasis on the radical, unequaled holiness of God makes the questioner feel like a heretic who denies the God who is. After pressing beyond the first defenses, the cracks widen under the weight of the simple analogies and parables used to question foundational tenets of Reformed thought. Let’s look at an example or two.
The following picture comes from a blog post by Greg Boyd on unconditional election, a central belief of reformed thought.
This is the propositional truth espoused that since man is fallen (by his own choice, of course), man cannot save himself. And, since man cannot (read: is completely without the ability to) save himself, he is without hope unless God acts on his behalf. However, we know factually that God does not act on behalf of all people. Therefore, those whom he chooses not to save, are damned. And, since God is eternal and unchanging, his affections towards the redeemed have eternally been gracious and loving while his affections towards the damned have eternally been judgment and wrath. Here, then, is the troubling question: God, in his infinite knowledge, chose to give existence to creatures whom he would knowingly leave in their condemned condition without acting in their favor. So, in simpler terms, he gave existence to creatures who would exist to be condemned. And, this decision to save or damn rests completely upon the holiness of God, not upon an intrinsic value or worth of individuals. God gave life to those he would destroy, and he did so willingly.
Well, here is the analogy that comes to mind. My wife and I have two children. Suppose I told you that we are planning on having three more, but before they are born (long before they are born), we have decided that we will hate the three of them so that our love for the first two might be shown to be truly wonderful, joyous, self-giving love. We will chose to leave our other kids in whatever condition they are born. Sure, we’ll meet their physical needs (we don’t want to be cruel, after all), but beyond the physical necessities, we will show the world how wonderfully great and generous parents we are by loving our two while comparatively ignoring our other children.
What kind of parents does that sound like? Good parents? Loving parents? No. They sound awful.
What kind of God is God if he brings into existence countless masses of people whom he has already decided to cast away as a means of demonstrating his holiness and love? Good? Loving?
Analogies are important because they take dogma and bring them down to a digestible level. Then, we are better equipped to evaluate the propositions. In biblical times Jesus used parables to communicate difficult truths. He had one such parable in wherein he related God to a father. This is what Jesus said:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!“ (Mt. 7:7-11)
God is a good Father. And, Jesus’ comparison is simple. If I as an evil father love my children unconditionally, and seek to go beyond their requests and give them good things, how much more will God give good things to those who ask? In other words, God is the greatest Father the world ever known. God loves his children unconditionally. And, who might I ask are his children? My two children are those two whom I “gave life” to. If that is the case, could it be argued that all those people God has brought into existence are his children? I think so. As a good Father, he seeks his children’s greatest good. When his children run from him, he waits watching the horizon for their return, ready to run and receive them with grace, love and a party. (Lk. 11:15-32) Yes, when necessary he punishes, but a good father punishes his children as a means of remedy or retribution? Does the “rod” have the purpose of correcting and training or punishing and exacting what is owed?
I’ll close this thought experiment by including a song I heard recently for the first time. Our analogies we examined were concerned with the goodness of our Father. Here’s a song that celebrates our Good, Good Father.