Sunday, December 21, 2008

The “Greatest Subject” Subjects Himself

We began the Oikonomia blog on August 1 with an entry entitled “God: The Greatest ‘Subject?’” to provoke some discussion, particularly around the following logic: God is the subject of the greatest book ever written, the Holy Bible, which is a tremendous reservoir of knowledge. Therefore, He might be considered the “Greatest Subject.”

On the other hand, the Bible reveals God as subject to no one because He owns all and is ruler of all; He is King of creation not a steward or caretaker on behalf of a master. But wait! Has God indeed been subject? We asked this question on August 1, then proceeded to discuss in subsequent entries how God did subject His creation to be under the dominion of humans who were commanded to serve as stewards. But humankind rejected their honorable role as ruling subjects, and God brought judgement upon them and their descendants.

Some would argue that God is unjust in judging humans for our failure. If He is truly God and our Creator, isn’t He being unjust to subject creation to our care then bring judgement for our failure? Indeed, isn’t God unjust on two counts. First, how can a righteous God be so unsympathetic toward mankind whom He created? Second, how can a supposedly omniscient God even know the limitations of our humanness as created beings in contrast to His divinity?

In response to the first indictment, the Bible reveals God as a Creator Who is fully aware of our limitations. For example, in a summary of the history of the nation of Israel in Psalm 78, Asaph recounts how the nation rebelled against God and writes in verses 38-39:

But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them;
And often He restrained His anger And did not arouse all His wrath.
Thus He remembered that they were but flesh, A wind that passes and does not return.

And, David writes of God’s knowledge in Psalm 103:14:

For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.

But how can we believe that the God of heaven is truly “mindful of our condition?” After all, He is God and we are not. This second indictment has an ontological basis; namely, that God’s nature as “spirit being” prevents Him from relating across a “great divide” to humans who reside in a body of flesh, made from the dust of Earth. How can God know what it is like to be human? Perhaps if He were to subject Himself to the limitations and temptations we face, we could believe that He really is mindful of our frailty.

The fact is, according to the biblical revelation, God has done just that. The “Greatest Subject” through His divine Son, Jesus Christ, became the subject of the limitations of the human condition and the subject of the imperfect judgement, ridicule, misunderstanding, scorn, and abuse of humans. Paul recounts in Philippians 2: 3-11 how Christ Who existed in the very form of God, ontologically speaking, emptied Himself, not of His deity, but of His divine right to act apart from the will of His Father in heaven. Therefore, in Christ, the perfect God-man, we see God coming across the “great divide” as a servant and steward of His Father’s kingdom to represent the very nature of God to mankind while experiencing all of the limitations of humanness, yet without sin. Being the sinless “lamb”, Jesus Christ could make the ultimate sacrifice, bearing our sin and rebellion on the cross which caused at that unique point in all eternity, His separation from the Father (spiritual death), the price necessary to bring atonement for our sins (Romans 6:23).

Philippians 2:1-11 is a fitting passage to read at Christmas time. As you read it, consider the imagery of heaven’s glory, the manger scene in Bethlehem, the meekness of Jesus as He walked this Earth serving, teaching, and healing many, and then dying a cruel death on a Roman cross. God is indeed the “Greatest Subject” because He became the Servant, the Steward Who would first identify with humanity both in life and in death; then, be raised to Eternal Life to make way for all who will subject themselves to accept Him as their perfect sacrifice to cover sin. His shed blood purchases (redeems) the believer from the slave market of sin and enables us through the power of His Holy Spirit to be bondservants and stewards in service of the King as we conduct our affairs humbly and justly on the Earth, His valued “footstool.”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Not Dominion But Rebellion -– and Restoration

I introduced Oikonomia to the blogsphere to promote reflection upon the nature of human responsibility to exercise dominion over the Earth and to exercise stewardship of the material resources, time, and talents we have received from our Creator.

We began by exalting YAHWEH as the “Greatest Subject” (August 1, 2008) for He is the King of all creation. Yet, surprisingly, the “Greatest Subject” chose to “subject” all of creation to the dominion of humankind as noted in our August 11 entry. God invited mankind to exercise dominion and thus be living examples of how God would rule over creation. We quoted Psalm 8 in this blog entry which calls us to contemplate the wondrous fact that the God of heaven would elevate humankind to the position of exercising dominion over His glorious creation:

What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet Psalm 8:4-6

In the August 29 and September 19 entries, we considered the importance of recognizing categories as one of the basic principles of biblical dominion – i.e. “Dominion 101.” Sadly, humankind failed the course when Adam and Eve failed to follow God’s command not to take and eat from one category among the trees of the Garden of Eden – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3). Suddenly aware of their nakedness and seeking to hide from the One with Whom they had walked and talked in the Garden, they sought to hide by camouflaging themselves with coverings of plant leaves.

Since mankind’s original “fall” in the Garden, there has been the “confusion of categories.” When we are out of fellowship with God, our view of God is diminished as stated in Romans 1:21 – they did not honor Him as God or give thanks. And often, our view of ourselves may be exalted in pride – professing to be wise they became fools (Rom 1:22) . Together, these sins tend to blur the distinctions between God and mankind; and between mankind and the other creatures. This is the “confusion of categories” that is actually promoted by pantheism (see entries for Aug. 29 and Sept. 19). In the Sept. 19 entry, we noted that proper exercise of dominion “requires that humans be humans, taking responsibility for dominion as God intended it– being image-bearers of the Almighty God and Glorious King of all creation.” We asked how this can be accomplished. The answer in part is that we must begin in humility and confession of sin. Then seek God’s wisdom and provision to be the servant kings He wants us to be:

Prayer: Lord, I can relate to Adam and Eve’s alienation from You through my own sin. Immediately, I see myself as defiled and degraded and not as one crowned with glory and majesty who can rule over the works of Your hands. Forgive me for rationalizing my own sin, sometimes blaming You, my Creator; sometimes blaming others, or looking for reasons to accuse them or find fault in them. Instead, help me own up to my own sin, for I have sinned against You. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7). Then, You will delight in righteous sacrifices (v. 19a) on this glorious Thanksgiving Day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Dominion 101 - Spheres of Responsibility

As the United States national election approaches, it is appropriate to share some thoughts on how the “dominion mandate” of Genesis 1 involves human responsibility in the context of societal structures that God has ordained on planet Earth. Christians are called to be salt and light in each of three spheres of responsibility (family, church, and government) that God has ordained to preserve the life of all creatures on Earth. Dominion as seen in this context is an outworking of the obedient submission to God with the result that family, church, government, and ultimately God’s creation can flourish (see Romans 13).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis for his uncompromising stand as a Christian pastor, wrote much about human responsibility in these three spheres. Consider the following excerpt from the "Religion and Ethics" website*

"Bonhoeffer may be our contemporary after all, but in a rather different way than some have proposed. He saw, behind the specifics of the Nazi threat, a more general problem in modern life with which we live, too. Defeating the Nazis didn't solve the problem. Defeating the Soviets didn't either.

Bonhoeffer's response to the question of how we are to avoid this slide into the abyss has little to do with creating a church that will simply be a refuge from the world around us. It's much more a matter of addressing the world in each of the essential structures God has provided for the preservation of human life. This is an idea that goes back to Luther – the three "orders" of church, government, and family. Later theologians expanded the list and called them "orders of creation." Bonhoeffer preferred "orders of preservation" in his early theological lectures. In the ETHICS he calls them the "Divine Mandates." They are the specific places where we are able to hear the command of God. In ETHICS his list varies some, but he includes church, family, work, and government, sometimes culture, sometimes maybe even friendship.

Those trained in Catholic moral theology will hear in Bonhoeffer's language about mandates an echo -- sometimes a rather faint echo, to be sure -- of the natural law idea missing from historic German Protestantism. His Protestant colleagues who heard the echo weren't sure at all that it was a good idea, but Bonhoeffer realized that you can't get along without some version of it. Responsible action means being responsible in those specific places where life is shaped for the whole society. You can't just be responsible by yourself, and you can't be responsible just by being the church. As Bonhoeffer said when he was a leader in the Confessing Church, "Let the church be the church." But in the ETHICS he sees that we have to add, "But let family, government, and work be themselves, too."

As a parishioner it is my role to be a testimony of the Word of God to my fellow parishioners and to support the ministry of the church through prayer and acts of encouragement and service. But it is also my role to be politically informed and to vote in support of candidates that uphold biblical principles (sanctity of life, protection of the sanctity of marriage, exercise of individual freedom and industry, etc.). It follows that, in this 2008 election, we are about to choose between two imperfect candidates– yet, only one presidential candidate stands for the above principles of sanctity of life and the institution of biblical marriage and family. In sharp contrast, the other candidate has stated the following in the Illinois senate: [If we make it illegal to save babies who survive botched abortions,] "We're saying they are persons entitled to the kinds of protections provided to a child, a 9-month child delivered to term. I mean, it would essentially bar abortions, because the equal protection clause does not allow somebody to kill a child."**

Of late, the 2008 campaign has been mostly about “the economy.” May this time of decision be a time of deeper contemplation upon the ethical values that are the essential, biblical foundation of our society. These values such as the sanctity of human life and the sacredness of all of creation are essential for the continuance of human life and its flourishing. We demonstrate the importance of these values as we exercise dominion within the “economies” God has ordained– family, church, government, and ultimately the “Economy” God sustains in partnership with our dominion over planet Earth.

* Bonhoeffer for the Twenty-first Century an essay by Robin W. Lovin, Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University.
**Illinois Federation for Right to Life News

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dominion 101 – A Course to Be Banned?

There I stood at the Columbus Zoo, looking through the glass at a bonobo, or pigmy chimpanzee. Her eyes and facial expression conveyed a welcome as the bonobo stood up in a human-like posture as if to greet me. Another one appeared, possibly her mate. I watched their behavior, at times entertaining, at other times showing respect for one another–touching, cuddling, nurturing.

As I observed their form and behavior, I reflected on the claim by many in our culture that Homo sapiens are simply one of several species of upright primates. What’s more, thanks to gene mapping, we now know that bonobos and humans have more than 98% of their DNA in common. Like humans, these chimps are capable of making and using tools, and both species live in families and form social bonds involving sexual behavior.

Although human rational ability surpasses that of the bonobo, the striking genetic, morphological, and social resemblances have led many to believe that humans are simply the most advanced product of a long evolutionary process. If this is true, how is it that humans should claim superiority or moral authority over other animal species?

In the August 29 entry, we emphasized that at the heart of our hypothetical course “Dominion 101" is the belief that God occupies a distinctly different “category of being” from His creation. If God’s distinctness from His creation as taught in Scripture is denied, there is no basis for His ownership of and dominion over creation.

Another foundational teaching of Dominion 101 is that God gave humans the right to exercise dominion over the other creatures. The psalmist, David, wrote:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet... Psalm 8: 3-6.

According to this and other Scriptures (e.g. Genesis 1:26-28), humans clearly have a unique place in God’s rule over creation. But humans have not generally exercised benevolent rule over the rest of the creation as befitting one who has been crowned with “glory and majesty.” Indeed, many environmentalists, in effect, call for a ban on the course, Dominion 101 because they reject the Judeo-Christian concept of “dominion.” Instead, they call for humans to learn to live in unity and harmony among the other species so that no one species can take advantage of other species.

Pantheistic teaching fits the bill for many environmentalists who see “categories” and “dominion” as the cause of the environmental crisis. Pantheism is often accepted as he solution for the “environmental crisis” because it denies categories and teaches peace and harmony between humans and nature which are both seen as part of a divine unity.

Albert Schweitzer was highly respected by those who sought this pantheistic unity and equality among the plants and animals. However, as Francis Schaeffer, in Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (Tyndale House), pointed out, “a pantheistic stand always brings man to an impersonal and low place rather than elevating him. At the end of his life, Schweitzer’s pantheism, instead of going toward a higher view of those among whom he worked, went toward a lower view.” If this assertion is true, humans cannot truly value and care for nonhuman species by abrogating our position of dominion and returning to the forest or meadow on an equal level with the other species such as the bonobo. Instead, “true environmentalism” requires that humans be humans, taking responsibility for dominion as God intended it– being image-bearers of the Almighty God and Glorious King of all creation. But how can we accomplish this?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dominion 101 – Categories Are Essential

Beginning at a very early age, learning depends upon our ability to distinguish categories of things. As babies, it was essential that we learned to distinguish Mommy from Daddy. In baby foods, we could distinguish pureed carrots from peaches. Doggies and kitties are different “species” of animals; both are different from trees, and so on. Yet, while a recent ABC poll reported that 95 percent of responders claimed to believe in God, there is a diversity of opinions as to the nature of God.

Pantheism teaches that God and the natural world are one. Creation is simply an extension of God’s essence. In his book, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (Tyndale House), Francis Schaeffer notes that, without categories, “in pantheistic simply does not have a creation, but only an extension of God’s essence, in which any such term as “God’s creation”...has no place (p. 26).”

However, those who accept the authority of biblical revelation, believe that God and His creation (or, “the world of nature”) belong in separate categories. They are separate entities, ontologically speaking. Genesis 1:1 states that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” Thus, God is ontologically distinct from His creation from a historical standpoint. That is, He existed before the heavens and the earth; and then, He created them out of nothing (ex nihilo).

God is also distinct from creation today as He has always been. In the New Testament book of Colossians 1:17, we read, “in Him all things hold together.” God is not only the Creator of the physical realm, but also the Sustainer Who holds it together in ways that are only partly evident through what we can discover as laws of physics and chemistry. This God, Whom we have called “the Greatest Subject,” chose to “subject” His creation to mankind so we would exercise dominion over creation.

But we rejected God’s plan and therefore, failed the course, “Dominion 101.” A major reason for this failure was the failure to recognize God’s holiness and uniqueness. Genesis 1-2 makes it very clear that there are categories of being, and God is supreme and in a category unique from all others.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks,
but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Professing to be wise, they became fools, – Romans 1: 21-22

In the next entry, we consider how failure to acknowledge categories of being was responsible for the beginning of humankind’s poor record of stewardship of the earth.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Greatest “Subject” (n.) Subjects (vb.)

Previously, we have suggested that God is the “Greatest Subject” based upon the fact that He is the “Subject” of the greatest book ever written. He is also the Eternal, Omniscient, Omnipresent God. Thus, He is unique and above all creation. And, He owns it all because He is the Creator.

Whether or not we consider God the “Greatest Subject” (noun), please consider the Genesis 1 account. In Gen 1:28 we read, “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

Here, God “subjects” (verb) His creation, not to angels or to another heavenly being, but to an earthly being, mankind. Think of it! The only wise God, Holy and unique above all of the physical realm, subjects His creation to a creature. The Psalmist David was struck by this awesome fact when he wrote:

O LORD (YAHWEH), our Lord (Adonai, or “Master”),
How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8: 1, 3-9 (NASB)

God chose to “subject” His creation to mankind so that mankind would exercise dominion and rule over creation while being submissive to God’s will. What an awesome opportunity and responsibility! What a promising future!

Yet, the destiny of mankind took a decided turn in the wrong direction. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the author quotes from Psalm 8 (above) saying, YOU HAVE PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET; then continues “For in ssubjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.” What a sorry lament: “But now, we do not yet see all things subjected to him.”

What happened? The answer will help us to appreciate God’s plan and authority, our need as humans to be willing “subjects,” and how God, the “Greatest Subject,” has made it possible for us to have a “second chance.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

God: The Greatest “Subject?”

The concept of oikonomia (stewardship) ultimately requires that we acknowledge the existence of God. This is because oikonomia is rooted in the nature, character, and purposes of God. The subject of the greatest book ever written, the Bible, is God. But, how can we call God a “subject” in any sense of the word?

When Moses asked His name, God spoke from the burning bush, saying “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14)*. God, as His Hebrew name, YAHWEH conveys, was revealing that He is a self-existent Being Who does not need a point of reference to define Himself--temporal, spatial, or intellectual. God is eternal (beyond measured time), omnipresent (unlimited by physical location), and omniscient (with infinite knowledge). How could such a God be “sub-“ (beneath or under) anything? Instead, in Psalm 95:3-6 we read:

For the LORD (YAHWEH) is a great God
And a great King above all gods,
In whose hand are the depths of the earth,
The peaks of the mountains are His also.
The sea is His, for it was He who made it,
And His hands formed the dry land.
Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.

Thus, God is the Owner of all, the King of all creation. He cannot be a steward, can He? A steward is responsible for that which he doesn't own; God owns it all. Therefore, God has never been a “subject” who serves a master. But wait! Has God indeed been “subject?”

Care to respond? Let us know whether or not you believe God can be called “the Greatest Subject.” We invite other comments or questions on this "subject."