Issue #23

Theology of Pleasure, Making Sense of Revelation, the Fracturing of Evangelicalism, and more...

Issue #23
Photo by Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash

Themes of Jonah, Part 2: Jonah and the Big Fish

Jonah, as anyone with a passing knowledge of Christianity knows, doesn’t drown, but is swallowed by a “big fish.” While many modern Christians have focused on the mechanics of a man being swallowed by a whale or fish, that isn’t really interesting to me (nor, it should be noted, the author, who mentions the fish in exactly three verses, and doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal).

Unlike what VeggieTales or children’s Bibles may have taught you, the fish is not the main point of the book of Jonah.

The interesting questions to me are the connections with other Hebrew scripture and keywords. Is there anywhere else that we see mention of “big fish” in Hebrew scripture and cosmology (how the Hebrew Bible talks about the structure of reality)? The best place to start, as usual, is Genesis 1.

Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
— Genesis 1:20-23 (NASB)

Well, how about that. The Hebrew word behind “great sea monsters” is tanin, and there is so much cross-referencing going on in the Hebrew Scriptures that I cannot fully dive into, but suffice to say that the result is that this “great sea monster” is connected to other elements of Hebrew mythology such as “Leviathan” (Psalm 104:26, etc.).

Given all of the other Genesis and Hebrew cosmological imagery in Jonah’s poem in Jonah 2, I feel fairly comfortable in linking the “big fish” with the great sea monsters of Genesis 1 and the Leviathan connected to it. And I’m not the only one to see this connection (for example, Dr. Tim Mackie, in his notes from his class on Jonah, writes:

The biblical authors were well aware of great, monstrous creatures in the deep sea. They were considered deities among Israel’s neighbors, but for the biblical authors, they were extremely powerful creatures who were under the rule of their Creator.

The Chaos Death Monster

If the imagery being used here is, as I’ve argued, tied to the sea monsters and Leviathan we see throughout scripture, what is the point? Well first, as a Bible nerd, I think it’s cool to see these connections throughout scripture. Second, understanding how these Hebrew authors think and the connections they make helps us to understand the points they are driving home.

The portrayal of Leviathan in scripture is complex. In alternate portrayals of creation, God either slew it (Psalm 74:12-14, Isaiah 51:9-10) or it’s a subservient creature God formed to play in his world (Psalm 104:24-27). The Leviathan is an image of a deity in the creation stories of Israel’s neighbors. By talking about the sea monster as slain by God or a subservient creation of God, the Hebrew authors are telling the Israelites that their God is supreme. No neighboring “god” can compare.

This is the big fish of Jonah. God is so mighty, so awesome and powerful, that when he wants to save Jonah, he simply tells this sea monster, Leviathan, “go swallow him,” it obeys. Jonah ran to a neighboring nation to try to escape God. He ran to the domain of other gods. But God, even as Jonah said himself, created the land and the sea (Jonah 1:9). All of creation submits to his will and power.

No power in heaven, nor creature of earth, nor anything else is bigger than our God.

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For More:

Consider Another Perspective 🤔

Debate on Total Inability: Leighton Flowers vs. Sean Cole | Revealed Apologetics (Eli Ayala) 📽 →

This is an interesting discussion between Leighton Flowers and Sean Cole on the “T” of the Calvinistic doctrinal acrostic “TULIP”. “TULIP” is a succinct set of 5 points that describe the Calvinistic doctrine of Salvation compared to other Christian explanations. The “T” represents the concept of “Total Depravity,” though really, in the Calvinistic system, it’s better described as “Total Inability.”

Total Inability teaches that humans are incapable of responding to the gospel without God first changing the fundamental nature of the person. In other words, regeneration precedes faith. Leighton Flowers, who labels himself a “provisionist” accepts Total Depravity—the view that human beings are 'fatally flawed' by sin and cannot save themselves—while rejecting Total Inability. In his view, faith precedes regeneration.

In these kinds of debates, we tend to hear the side we already agree with win the debate (which makes sense since we already agree with their points)! My suggestion to you is to listen to understand rather than to listen to hear another side lose a debate.

For More:

Christianity Is True ✝️

The (Un)Reasonableness of Mathematics | William Lane Craig 📽 →

Have you ever thought about Math as evidence for the existence of God? Believe it or not, philosophers have been thinking about this for a while. Dr. Craig has defended the thesis that Math points to God, and he recently released a short film explaining how. If you have four minutes to spare, it’s well worth it.

The realm of mathematics is nonphysical and abstract. Yet for some reason, the physical universe operates mathematically. Perhaps even more puzzling, a mathematical framework not only exists in the natural world, but in the minds of human beings as well. How is it that a mathematical theorist like Peter Higgs can sit down at his desk and, by pouring over mathematical equations, predict the existence of a fundamental particle? The idea that this universe should be imbued with a mathematical structure that makes science possible cries out for some sort of explanation. Why is mathematics so effective?

For More:

Read and Reflect 📖

A Biblical Theology of Pleasure | Tim Shorey 📃 →

God could have made all nutritious food taste like sawdust and given us an irresistible urge to eat it anyway. And while some allegedly nutritious food does taste like sawdust, the truth is most of it tastes good, at least to some people. While nutritious mud-burgers and healthy sawdust salads—devoured by an irresistible survival instinct—could have been our daily fare, they are not. This says something wonderful about the One who made us.

How should we understand pleasure in this God-created world of wonder and sorrow? Should we be ascetics like some of the ancients and completely shun self-indulgence and pleasures? Should we be hedonists and enjoy pleasure wherever we can find it?

A faithful life requires a robust theology of pleasure to accompany a realistic theology of suffering and sacrifice. Those who serve well and suffer much need to know God created pleasure and wants them to enjoy it. Ajith Fernando, no stranger to sorrow, makes this stunning claim: “God has made us with the capacity for ecstasy, and he expects us to use it.”

Going back to the first pages of scripture is always helpful too. What were we created for? To find pleasure in work amid relationship with God, and in doing so, to reflect God’s glory out to all creation.

For More:

Consider the Culture 🎨

Christian Nationalism | Think Biblically with Sean McDowell and Scott Rae 🎧 →

With the election of 2020 and the events surrounding the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the phenomena of Christian nationalism became front page news. While different than loving one's country, Christian nationalism, described by one observer as "wrapping the cross in the flag" is challenging to define and holds some theological assumptions that merit close scrutiny. Join Scott and Sean as they discuss this unique fusion of Christian faith and country and they answer the questions around the American founding as a Christian nation. While upholding love of one's country, they also point out some of the dangers of Christian nationalism to the church.

There is a difference between loving one’s culture and upbringing, and allowing that love to blind ourselves to its faults, and seeking to help to marginalized.

There was a recent poll that found at only 14% of conservative American Christians of any race believe that their Christian identity is more important than their American identity (the vast majority believe them equally important). Given the statistics, I recognize that this letter is probably going out to people who would agree with the majority.

I do not condemn you, though I disagree with you. I would have agreed with you at one point in my life. I merely invite you to listen to this podcast with an open mind.

Explore the Scriptures 📖

Making Sense of Revelation with Brett Davis & Glenn Packiam | Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley 📽 →

Revelation is one of the most mysterious and strange books in the Bible. Is it mapping out end times events? Is it just tripping? Or is it something else?

I really enjoyed this discussion, which doesn’t wade deep into the weeds of different theological systems of the end times like pre, post, and a-millennialism. Instead, it takes a higher-level look at the question, “What should be our approach to reading Revelation?”

As a Bible nerd, I found the video incredibly engaging, and I thought that a lot of their points were very well made and helpful for everyone, from layman to Bible nerd alike.

For More:

Church History Corner ⛪️

Which Canon is Right? With Michael Kruger | Truth Unites with Gavin Ortlund 📽 →

Pastor Gavin Ortlund interviews Dr. Michael Kruger on the question of the Biblical canon. The “canon” is simply a shorthand term for “which books are in the Bible”. What books were accepted, and why? What books were rejected, and why? When were the books officially accepted, and what happened before then?

There aren’t many Christians better equipped to answer these questions than Dr. Kruger, and this 30-minute interview will give you a good overview of the questions involved and good answers for them. Whether you need to answer a Roman Catholic—who have a different canon than Protestants—or to a knowledgable atheist, or if you’re merely curious yourself, I think this is a great interview.

For More:

Best with a Cup of Tea ☕️

The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism | Michael Graham 📃 →

Every week I label the last article “Best with a Cup of Tea,” because if you read nothing else, I hope you’ll sit down with a cup of tea (or coffee, if you must) and think about this one. But few of the articles, even in this slot, are as important as this one.

Conservative American Christianity has been slowly fracturing for a while (I’ve written about this before, but it was in Issue #4, so I doubt many read it 😅). The last 5 years have been a dousing of lighter fluid on the kindling. Splits over whether Trump is the good savior of America or its evil downfall, if none, some, or many Christian churches and institutions are abusing their power, if women being abused in churches is a structural issue or not, if ethnic minorities are structurally and systemically oppressed or not, if wearing masks or taking a vaccine is loving your neighbor or bowing to evil authority, and more questions have driven a wedge both between and within churches.

Bethlehem Baptist Church—where John Piper, whose teaching we have linked to many times, is a former lead pastor, is one such church. Piper’s successor, Jason Meyer, and other pastors and members recently stepped down (and out) due to exactly these fractures. If you are interested in a lengthy, but generally even-handed inspection of the reasons behind this exodus, I recommend Kate Shellnutt’s article at Christianity Today: Bethlehem Baptist Leaders Clash Over ‘Coddling’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ | Kate Shellnutt 📃.

Graham’s article, referenced by former Pastor Meyer in his resignation letter, is incredibly perceptive in highlighting the differences between Christians, all of whom used to, or still do, label themselves “Evangelical.”

Graham splits what once was “evangelicalism” into six categories. I will quote at length his six-way split:

1. Neo-Fundamentalist Evangelical– Neo-fundamentalists are those who have deep concerns about both political and theological liberalism. There is some overlap and co-belligerency with Christian Nationalism (a syncretism of right wing nationalism and Christianity) but neo-fundamentalists do so with more theological vocabulary and rationality. Concerning threats within the church, they have deep worries with the church’s drift towards liberalism and the ways secular ideologies are finding homes in the church. Outside the church, they are concerned by the culture’s increasing hostility to Christianity, most prominently from mass media, social media, and the government.

2. Mainstream Evangelical – Historically this term has been Protestants who hold to the Bebbington Quadrilateral of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. The emphasis for this group is on the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Concerning threats within the church, they share some concern for the secular right’s influence on Christinaity[sic], including the destructive pull of Christian Nationalism, but are far more concerned by the secular left’s influence and the desire to assimilate since the world still remains so hostile. Outside the church, they are likely uncomfortable with the rhetoric Trump and other conservatives use but view this direction as the lesser of two evils.

3. Neo-Evangelical – People who would see themselves as “global evangelicals” and are doctrinally “Evangelicals” (w/ some philosophy of ministry differences) but no longer use the term “evangelical” in some circumstances in the American context as the term as an identifier has evolved to be more political than theological. Within the church, they are highly concerned by conservative Christianity’s acceptance of Trump and failure to engage on topics of race and sexuality in helpful ways, but they have not totally abandoned evangelical identification and likely still labor in churches with the broadest spectrum of these groups. Outside of the church, this group feels largely homeless in today’s world. There is equal concern, or slightly more either way depending on the person, at the threat the left and the right pose to Christians seeking to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness.

4. Post-Evangelical – People who have fully left evangelicalism from a self-identification standpoint and reject the “evangelical” label yet are still churched and likely still agree with the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed. They are more deconstructed than neo-evangelicals and they are more vocal in their critiques of 1s and 2s than 3s would be. Some remain firmly in Protestant circles and others have crossed over to mainline, catholic, or orthodox traditions while still holding to the basic creeds. Concerning threats within the church, they are focused on abuse, corruption, hypocrisy, Christian nationalism, and the secular right. Outside the church, they are primarily concerned with the matters of injustice, inequity, the secular right, and to a lesser extent the radical secular left. Many 4s are 4s also because their experiences with predominantly white evangelicalism have been so difficult and strained that physical distance seemed to be the only conclusion…

5. Dechurched (but with some Jesus) – People who have left the church but still hold to at least some orthodox Christian beliefs.

6. Dechurched and Deconverted – People who have left the church and are completely deconverted with no vestigial Christian beliefs.

There are other analyses of the differences arising between evangelicals. This is a different but still helpful analysis by Kevin DeYoung: Why Reformed Evangelicalism Has Splintered: Four Approaches to Race, Politics, and Gender | Kevin DeYoung 📃 . DeYoung draws four approaches to cultural issues: Contrite, Compassionate, Careful, and Courageous, and he lists how these four attitudes respond to various cultural issues.

Back to Graham’s article; he doesn’t see these six categories as hard lines. There is room for existing between these categories. He goes on to write about the “fault lines” where the primary conflict is arising: between 1s and 3s, and between 2s and 4s. Finally, he walks through how churches themselves are likely to shift in the coming decade. I will leave it to you to read the article here, but please do, because these battle lines are critical to understanding how American Christianity is shifting.

Former pastor Meyer found this article helpful in analyzing why he was encountering so much conflict between elders. He saw himself as a 2.5 on the above scale in a church where the majority of the eldership and laity were 1s. That fundamental difference in philosophy made it impossible for him to be the lead pastor of the church without tearing it apart, and so he left.

The rate at which divergent views have been revealed has created jarring relational dissonance. People in the pews are left questioning the extent to which their unity is based on the Apostles or Nicene creeds or other political, cultural, and socioeconomic matters. They are left questioning where churches, ministries, or organizations land on these things.
The tectonic plates are shifting underfoot. This fracturing will likely be irrevocable not because our Gospel essentials are not unifying enough but because the divergence of ethical priorities, cultural engagement, racial attitudes, political visions/illusions, and their implications for philosophy of ministry mean that unity is fundamentally no longer tenable.

While I hope that this is not the case, I fear it is. Once united churches are splitting over issues of how to faithfully respond to these cultural and political issues. I have written before about theological triage and a three-part split of Christian doctrine in Issue #7 based on Core, Secondary, and Tertiary doctrines.

Are the issues facing American evangelicalism second-tier (non-core issues we should divide over, such as infant vs. believer’s baptism) or third-tier (non-core issues we should not divide over, such as the age of the earth). I suspect that we will tend towards the former.

The sad part is that, as my wife told me, we need each other. However this fracturing occurs, American conservative Christianity will look very different and we will need to find ways to unite where we can be united, and disagree in love and well. We are united in our core commitments about the supremacy of God and his glory, and so there is hope.

Keep Your Mind on Things Above

I will be praying for you this week.

“You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
— Matthew 5:11-12 (CSB)

Joel Fischer