Where is the Garden of Eden?

Here’s an interesting point in Genesis 2…

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A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:10–14)

As far as I know, there isn’t a clear identification for Havilah.

But Cush is an ancient kingdom in Southern Egypt / Northern Sudan / Northern Ethiopia (i.e. a long way south of Israel), and the Tigris and Euphrates are in modern Iraq (and to travel there you go north from Israel, through Lebanon / Western Syria, rather than going east through the desert).

The main geographic clues in the text itself point in opposite directions, and to different continents!

That rather raises the question of whether the garden was ever intended to be understood as a literal place. Maybe it was, and the whole region was massively reconfigured by the Flood. Or maybe it was only ever meant to be symbolic. In either case, it’s rather tricky to find.

And yes, there’s lots I could then say about Eden symbolism in the Temple as pointing to the fact that humanity’s exclusion from Eden wasn’t permanent, and to the way that the Most Holy Place points a way beyond Eden, but that can wait for another time…

What is Calvinism?

The Protestant Reformation was a movement in the 1500s where churches across Europe rejected the authority of the Pope and went back to Scripture. It wasn’t actually a single movement – there were lots of movements and groups across Europe doing different things in response to different local circumstances.

John Calvin was one of the key figures in the Reformation. He was a second-generation Reformer – Martin Luther published the 95 Theses in 1517, but Calvin started his ministry in the 1530s, and died in 1564. He started out as a lawyer in Paris, but was exiled from France, and ended up settling in Geneva – a French-speaking city just over the Swiss border.

Calvin was first and foremost a Bible teacher and theologian. He wasn’t the leader of a movement, but his preaching and teaching were enormously influential, especially because of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is one of the most important theology books of all time.

His influence on the English-speaking world was particularly strong because during the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor (1553-1558), many British church leaders took refuge in Geneva. One example would be John Knox, the Scottish founder of Presbyterianism.

Calvinism as it’s now understood doesn’t actually come from Calvin and isn’t a fair summary of his teaching. For example, in the Institutes, Calvin doesn’t mention predestination until about halfway through, whereas Calvinist Louis Berkhof puts it right at the start of his Systematic Theology. Calvinisim really comes from the Synod of Dort, which took place in 1618/9 (50 years after Calvin’s death), where people who liked Calvin’s teaching met to discuss how to respond to a movement called Arminianism. They came up with a five point summary of Calvinism, which is still well known.

A major problem with the five points is that they describe the reaction against Arminianism. They were never meant to be the basis of a systematic theology in their own right. Another problem is that they aren’t especially clear – because the summaries are so well known and each of them can be understood in several different ways. In general, Calvin himself was closer to the “soft” end of the understanding, but people who don’t like Calvinism tend to react to the “hard” version. Of course, it’s fairly easy to find people who believe any combination of these!

The five points, complete with hard and soft versions are as follows (they have the acronym TULIP).

1. Total Depravity

Hard version: Everything we do is only evil all the time.
Soft version: Everything we do is tainted by sin, so that nothing we do is ever completely pure.

2. Unconditional Election

Soft version: God doesn’t choose us because we do good things; he chooses us because he loves us.
Hard version: We don’t need to worry too much about evangelism because some people are just called and others aren’t.

3. Limited Atonement

Soft version: Jesus’ death doesn’t lead to forgiveness for everyone, but only for some people.
Hard version: There are some people who are not called – reprobates. They don’t really matter much, and Jesus’ death certainly didn’t do them any good.

4. Irresistible Grace

Soft version: When God calls us, he does so in such a way that we choose to go along with him.
Hard version: We don’t have free will in this at all.

5. Perseverance of the Saints

Soft version: If we really trust in Jesus, God will give us grace so that we will keep trusting him to the end.
Hard version: If you’re really a Christian, you don’t need to worry about what you do because you’re safe.

And yes, the cartoon character from Calvin & Hobbes was named after John Calvin.

The TOAD of Guidance

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When we talk about “God’s will” or “God’s plan”, there are actually three different things that we might mean.

  • God’s sovereign plan – his plan that can never be beaten or thwarted – e.g. in Romans 8:28-30

  • God’s revealed plan – which is what he wants us to do. It’s not always the same thing – God sometimes calls us to do things and we don’t do them. That doesn’t mean we’re stepping outside his sovereign plan, but it might mean we miss out on some blessings. e.g. Judas Iscariot.

  • God’s individual plan – what God wants me (or you) to do that he doesn’t necessarily want other people to do. For example, in Acts 16, Paul concludes that God is telling him to go to Macedonia, but that’s not something God tells everyone to do.

The Bible almost entirely focuses on how to God’s sovereign and revealed plans – it tells us lots of stuff God calls us to do, and lots of things about who he calls us to be. e.g. Eph 1:3-12. There’s lots about how to live; not much about specific situations.

And that shows us that God cares far more about how we behave in our marriage than about who we marry; he cares more about the way we go about doing our job (and not letting our job eat our life) than he does about what we do for a living.

When it comes to questions of God’s calling, our main focus should be on what he has told us clearly in the Bible. The Bible tells us everything we need to know to live for him in the world (e.g. 2 Tim 3:16-17).

Sometimes God also speaks to us individually by his Spirit, but

God also sometimes speaks to us individually by his Spirit, but:

  • he has never promised to give us individual answers to questions

  • what we think we hear must always be tested (e.g. 1 John 4)

  • God’s Spirit will never contradict scripture

  • It doesn’t take away our responsibility for making a good decision Ps 32:8-9

Often we have to make decisions without a direct word from God on the situation.

What we need then is wisdom, which also comes from the Spirit (James 1:5).

There’s a wonderful example of this in Psalm 32:8-9.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.

God promises to guide, but also tells his people not to be like the horse or mule which need telling every step of the way; he expects us to use our abilities and wisdom in following him.

And that brings us to the TOAD of guidance.

  • Trust God’s sovereign plan

  • Obey God’s revealed plan

  • Ask for God’s individual plan

  • Decide for yourself!

Thy Kingdom Come (Day 1 – Manchester)

Today is Ascension Day – the day when we remember that 40 days after Easter, Jesus ascended into heaven and now reigns as King over the universe.

It’s also the first day of Thy Kingdom Come – a call for Christians across the country and the world to pray for God to pour out his Holy Spirit on the church to equip us for mission and on the world to draw people to know him.

It’s also, of course, just a few days after the Manchester bombing that was targeted at a roomful of girls and killed and harmed so many in the city where I was born, which I love, and which I called home for half my life.

What do we do with all of this?

I think the first thing we need to remember is that the prayer “thy kingdom come” is one of those prayers that we know will always be answered. Jesus is King – the Ascension established that once and for all. And even though in this world his kingdom is resisted – even though people go around with their evil schemes, their plans for terror and mayhem and confusion and anything else that resists Jesus’ rule, Jesus is still king. His kingdom will come. Terror will fail. Christ will come again.

So therefore, as Christians, we do not need to be afraid. People can try to terrorise, but we can resist. We refuse to be terrorised. Our confidence is not in the security services (though we thank God for their skill and hard work). Our confidence is in the coming kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who has conquered even sin and death and whose perfect love casts out fear.

The same is true as we hold the good news of Jesus out to the world. We refuse to be terrorised – to give in to lies and threats. We will keep on praying, even for those who persecute us. We will keep on loving, even when it is returned with hate. We will keep on pointing people to the absolute safety and security we have in Jesus, even though so many do not yet listen.

And we keep on praying “thy kingdom come”, and we keep on watching and waiting to see what God will do in our cities, in our country and in our world. Because it’s going to be amazing.

 

(I won’t have time to post devotionals every day of TKC…)

On “Equal Marriage”

This chart did the rounds quite a lot during the debates about same-sex marriage (SSM). It illustrates all the different types of marriage mentioned in the Old Testament, with the conclusion that several of them are rather less ethical than gay marriage, so we can’t appeal to the Old Testament’s view of marriage to oppose SSM. Regardless of what you think about SSM, the argument is hideously flawed and ends up backfiring massively. Here’s why.

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  1. The Old Testament does a lot of reporting of history without commenting on whether or not what was happening was a good thing. The authors tend to assume that the reader can work it out for themselves. Quite a few of the bad marriage situations in the Old Testament are recorded because they happened, often as bad examples, rather than commended as good ones. An obvious example of this is polygamy. It’s never commended, occasionally banned (e.g. for priests); every example of it in the Old Testament goes horribly wrong.
  2. The Old Testament law does a lot of legislating to curb the excesses of human behaviour rather than just outlawing stuff completely. Examples of this are the laws on the blood-feud, where it limits retaliation to the size of the original offence, and provided cities for someone to escape to. That’s not saying that blood-feuds are right; it’s recognising what level of change was achievable in that society at that time.
  3. Social conditions were dramatically different for much of the Old Testament. Imagine a society where a family could not easily survive without both men and women doing their distinctive work (farming and grinding corn / cooking), but where 50% of the male population were dead or absent due to wars and slave raids, and a large proportion of women died in childbirth. Polygamy might well be a helpful survival mechanism in a society like that.

All of those are minor factors. But the big problem with the argument is this. From this survey of types of marriage in the Old Testament, what is the essential core of what marriage actually is?

It’s not having just two people – there’s plenty of polygamy. It’s not consent (of either party) – there are plenty of arranged and forced marriages. It’s not faithfulness, or committedness, or stability. There are two and only two factors that seem to be common to all OT marriages. All of them are heterosexual; and all of them involve sex.

What this survey of Old Testament marriage arrangements establishes clearly is that in the Old Testament, a marriage is only a marriage if it involves heterosexual sex. For the purposes of identifying what is a marriage and what isn’t, all the other stuff seems to be incidental.

That conclusion surprises me, but I think it’s inescapable from the data presented. Somehow I don’t think it was the conclusion the people who put the argument together in the first place wanted me to draw… Their own argument has established that the Old Testament’s view is that SSM is impossible.

What does the Bible say about Children and Communion?

Whether children should be able to receive Communion is a live issue in quite a few churches, including ours. Our tradition is that children are usually baptised as infants, but can only receive communion after confirmation as teens. The question is whether that is a good policy or not.

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There are obviously several different angles we could look at it from – how people’s own experience makes them feel about it, or the practicalities involved. I couldn’t find much on the specific question of what the Bible says about whether children should receive communion (largely because at first sight it doesn’t seem to say much), but after some thought and discussion I came to the conclusion it actually says quite a bit about the topic, so here’s what I’ve noticed. Continue reading “What does the Bible say about Children and Communion?”