Well I got into a twitter argument with a young Calvinist named John following his response to some of my retweets of Jonathan Martin’s sermon “Playing God” this past Sunday. It was one of those petty affairs where I was nitpicking his “objections,” which I could have at least partly agreed with if I were listening charitably, because of my need to hear him concede a point to me without qualification. He said something that I trashed at the time which I wanted to consider more thoughtfully now: “If your doctrine is sound, you will love deeply.” So interrogating this statement is the focus of my second riff on morality, truth, Biblical interpretation, etc, in light of Genesis 3’s provocative claim that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is paradoxically the poisonous foundation for human sin.
If I want to interpret my brother John’s statement dismissively, it’s quite easy to do so. It could be taken to epitomize what I call doctrinal Pelagianism, the widespread heresy in conservative evangelicalism that we are “saved” (and hence granted the regeneration that makes us “love deeply”) by what we believe about Jesus, which incidentally should be more anathema to a Calvinist than an Arminian, though some Calvinists try to go through the logical gymnastics of saying that if you’re elect, then God will make you agree with all the right facts about Him.
If “doctrine” refers to a set of propositional statements about God (like on the suburban megachurch’s tucked away “What we believe” page), then its capacity to make us love deeply seems utterly ridiculous. Maybe love for the elegance of ideas and the symmetries and analogies they form in an all-encompassing systematic explanation of everything, but actually loving other people? Sheesh…
But let’s say I try instead to engage my brother John’s statement with charity. One of the most important things my podcast preacher Greg Boyd says that I agree with is that sin has its foundation in a demonic conception of God. If we believe that God is a “slave-driver” like the older brother of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 or a “hard man who reaps where he doesn’t sow” like the third servant in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), then our doctrine will keep us from loving deeply.
Bad doctrine does matter. A lot. And that’s actually central to the story in Genesis 3. The way that Adam and Eve are tricked into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is because the serpent drops some toxic doctrine into Eve’s ear, convincing her that God is a petty, insecure tyrant who doesn’t want Adam and Eve to know about good and evil because all He cares about is protecting His God-ness from being encroached upon by humans.
If we’re honest exegetes, we have to admit that Genesis 3 grows quite awkward when God panics in verse 22: “See, the man has become like one of us… And now he might reach out his hand and take also the fruit from the tres of life and eat and live forever.” Hardly the way a supposedly self-sufficient, omnipotent deity would talk, which is why the only thing I can do with that verse is to call it a residue from whichever ancient Near Eastern myth the Hebrews used as a template for their creation story that the Holy Spirit left in the Biblical canon to mess with us.
Now the inerrantists who believe that Moses dictated the whole Old Testament to a scribe who anachronistically wrote in post-exilic Hebrew centuries before the Babylonian exile have to make that verse work somehow, which is only possible if you admit that the serpent was exactly right since verse 22 shows that God’s command about the fruit was rooted all along in His anxiety about defending His turf from the possibility of humans becoming gods themselves, even echoing the Hebrew words that the serpent uses in his claim.
Verse 22 is a huge test for our doctrine of God as readers of the Bible; I might even say a skandala, or stumbling block, to use a New Testament word. Was the serpent right about God’s motives for saying don’t eat that fruit? Whether or not you want to admit that you’re saying yes to the serpent, that’s what you’ve done if your doctrine of God says that God’s greatest concern is defending His glory from human encroachment and the reason to obey God is only because He’s God and whatever He says is right.
But I prefer to assume that God isn’t a neurotic territorial dooshbag like Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of Josef Stalin in The First Circle, hiding in a bunker from the Soviet people he terrorizes because he fears them more than they fear him. I prefer to assume that God’s command to Adam and Eve wasn’t the arbitrary “because I said so” the serpent makes it out to be. I prefer to assume that the serpent is in fact the one who is lying and that God was actually looking out for Adam and Eve’s best interests when He says in Genesis 2:17, “On the day you eat that fruit, you will surely die [in some kind of way which wasn’t physical since they didn’t actually die on the day they ate it].”
These assumptions that I make are the product of my doctrine of God. I am very passionate about it, and I do consider more than a few other doctrines of God to be dangerous heresies that should be condemned by all Christians, such as the popular presentation of God as a Nietzschean übermensch fuehrer whose will is good because He’s in charge. So I’m actually very much a dogmatist, a polemicist, and perhaps even an inquisitor. I’d like to think that I don’t indulge in the same kinds of power games and guilt-by-association tactics that gospel coalitions tend to play. I hope that my doctrine is in fact sound enough to enable me to love deeply so that even people whose God looks like a monstrous jerk to me can somehow see my love for them in the heat of my most ardent arguments against them.
But the reality is that I betray my doctrine all the time by being unloving to those whom I have “othered” sufficiently out of the scope of people I feel responsible for treating with charity. In my mind, I make them into cocky, perpetually adolescent Atlas Shrugged-toting, uncritically pseudo-Kantian, privilege-soaked, clueless monsters of modernity, so that I can pleasure myself by firing my polemical canons again and again at their juicy targets while the sparks fly like I’m still playing Duke Nukem with my college dorm-mates and blowing them to smithereens, all the while chomping bite after bite out of that sweet, tasty fruit that Adam and Eve ate together.
And yet somehow I have to say the doctrine itself is not the rotten apple here. How can it be rotten to say that God is good all the time? We say it at my worship service every week after communion. Sometimes I almost scream it. That is the centerpiece of my doctrine of God. And what I believe is that God’s goodness is not wholly unknowable by us and unanalogous to anything in our experience as some people try to claim when they say God’s love is nothing like anything we call love and things of that nature.
It is not merely that God can make no mistakes because whatever God does is by default the un-mistake. His goodness means perfect infinite benevolence on a level that no human being can comprehend. That is what Isaiah means when he says God’s ways are “higher than our ways” — not that God is infinitely picky and inflexible as some want to interpret it, but that all of His blessings, punishments, exhortations, and apocalyptic threats are actually for our good.
Even when His prophets call a horrific, life-wrecking military invasion and exile that hurt many people God loves dearly “discipline for Israel’s sins” (so that the exiles could scrape some kind of meaning out of it and not lose their identity in Babylonian culture). Even if He uses hyperbolic exhortations (that we’re not supposed to take literally) like threatening us with hellfire if we don’t rip our eyeballs out after looking at a girl’s butt on the sidewalk (Matthew 5:29). Even if He seems to command genocide in the stories of early Israel in Joshua, Judges, and 1 & 2 Samuel. Against all apparent evidence to the contrary, I maintain that God is perfectly, infinitely benevolent in a way that we simply cannot comprehend.
God wants what is truly best for all of His creation, including the land where nothing lives and the lions, ravens, ostriches, wild oxen, behemoths and leviathans that He tells Job about. He causes His sun to shine on the good and wicked alike, as Jesus reminds us while exhorting us to aspire to that particular way of describing perfection (Matthew 5:48). What Jesus demonstrates is that God’s perfect goodness means the opposite of an inability to commune with, sympathize with, and even stand up to the critics on behalf of really bad people like Zacchaeus the tax-collector who cheated and oppressed his people no less than the nastiest Gordon Gecko on Wall Street today. God’s mercy is not “in tension” with His goodness; it is one of His most resonant expressions of it along with His justice, even when they take the form of a mama bear’s wrathfully fierce defense of her children.
God is good all the time. It does make me love deeply when I remember to recite that doctrine as the basic mantra of my heart, especially when it’s a statement of defiance and rebellion against what the world around me presents as irrefutable evidence that God is a cold, cruel tyrant. So how do I test out my doctrine? Because I could find plenty of evidence for all kinds of ugly things to believe about God in scripture that would make me into a hateful person.
It’s a mysterious, irreducibly cyclical process. It does matter that I am anchored in God’s Biblical canon; I would be utterly lost if I had to scour all the literature in the world for a doctrine of God that would make me love deeply. God is good and loving enough to give me boundaries. But it’s not enough to flip open the Bible and uncritically regurgitate it. I must love my way to the right doctrine of God (through the hermeneutics of charity that Augustine described), part of which involves the recognition that whenever I truly love, I am being moved to do so by God Himself.
So God loves me into right doctrine. When I see myself falling into “enmities, factions, anger, strife,” and other fruits of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21), I know that something’s not working. When the poetry of my heart produces “peace, kindness, generosity,” and other fruits of the spirit (vv. 22-23), that’s a hopeful sign that God is writing the poetry of my doctrine. Doctrine need not be a hard, tyrannical word any more than the notes of a musical scale used to play a beautiful improvisation.
The apostle James’ retort against those who try to drive a wedge between faith and works is to say, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18). May God grant me the grace to show my doctrine with my deep love.